This Minister is writing the recipe for agri-food and rural success
Curated by Owen Roberts
Storyteller: Lisa Thompson
November 6, 2021
Don’t ask Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Lisa Thompson for one of her favourite homegrown recipes. Ask for three.
Recipes give avowed foodie Thompson, Ontario’s 40th agriculture minister, the chance to promote the province’s amazingly diverse cornucopia of 200-plus commodities. That’s more than any province in Canada.
And at the same time, she gets to sing the praises of her husband Dennis’s culinary prowess. His homemade sweet corn chowder (see recipe below) is at the top of her favourite-recipe list.
“Dennis and I freeze bags and bags of Ontario sweet corn for this recipe,” she says. “It’s the best.”
Indeed, Ontario’s long, hot summers, combined with a healthy dose of rainfall connected to the Great Lakes, are ideal for growing not only sweet corn, but the ingredients for the minister’s other two favourite recipes, as well: strawberry-rhubarb tarts and French toast breakfast muffins (from the Foodland Ontario calendar).
The minister understands where those commodities and others come from, how they’re produced and who produces them. Being raised in rural Ontario and having been a part of many agriculture and rural groups such as the Ontario 4-H Foundation (which she chaired) and vice-chair of Agriculture in The Classroom (now AgScape), she had all kinds of street cred when she was named minister on June 18, 2021.
“Minister Thompson has a valuable understanding of farm and rural issues and has a direct connection to those communities,” Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Peggy Brekveld told Farmtario. Rob VandenHengel, president of Huron County Federation of Agriculture, told the Brantford Expositor Thompson’s appointment was “awesome.”
As minister, she travels throughout the province, visiting farms, agri-businesses and rural communities. Along the way, she’s seeing changes that bode well for Ontario’s future – changes that can be traced back to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
For example, the pandemic sparked new interest in homegrown food. Like the rest of the world, Ontario was initially gripped with food insecurity fears. But after a short spate of panic buying, fear turned to calm as food shortages were quickly dealt with. Thompson notes how well-established systems were in place to ensure the food supply would experience no more than a short-term hiccup.
Consumers, watching all this unravel, learned about food production in rural Ontario, and more about the 49,000 farmers who grow it and raise it. And what’s followed is a long-awaited fascination with rural Ontario.
Like its counterparts elsewhere in Canada and the US, rural Ontario is on the move. In November, the American Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), a lobby group that closely watches trends influencing machinery sales on both sides of the border, released results of an urban America survey showing almost 70 per cent of the respondents said they’d be open to moving to a rural area.
Some of them self-define as “ruralists,” people who believe that small-town life is “more beautiful” than city living. They also believe that a rural lifestyle is healthier, and that it could be a better place to raise children. “They feel that there are more opportunities that they can impact their community, as smaller communities are closer knit and more reliable in the eyes of a ruralist,” says the AEM.
In fact, those who took part in the AEM study were even able to articulate a fairly precisely measured vision of the elbow room space they’ll acquire: While about a third of them are expecting a large yard or property (under an acre), more than half think they’ll own up to five acres of land. And more than 10 per cent plan to own more than five acres.
Minister Thompson gets it. “People are looking for greener pastures,” she says. She believes rural living reflects people’s increased desire for more space, after having been cooped up during the pandemic. It’s the same desire that’s sent urbanites racing for post-pandemic recreational opportunities, a phenomenon Thompson understands: Lake Huron, near Teeswater (pop. 1,100) where Lisa and Dennis farm, is renowned for having the world’s best sunsets. It rates as one of the minister’s top rural Ontario destinations, although she finds it hard to choose just one.
“You can find beauty by turning onto any of the secondary highways in the province and exploring the small towns, finding the likes of shops, restaurants, wineries and craft breweries,” she says. “My favourite destination in Ontario is anywhere off the beaten path.”
Thompson says another reason for rural migration is that urban people are embracing entrepreneurial opportunities in rural areas. As populations there increase, so do jobs. Thompson says finding employees for those jobs – including new Canadians -- and preparing rural communities for an influx of new citizens is a big challenge, particularly in the agri-food sector with so many unfilled openings. Mountains of behind-the-scenes work is needed to attract and sustain employment -- for example, housing and other infrastructure planning.
And infrastructure includes Internet access, which has been an ongoing problem outside urban centres. AEM believes the rural migration trend could get even stronger “if rural broadband gets the attention those who are now working from home say it needs.” Thompson notes the government’s goal is to have everyone connected to high-speed internet by 2025.
That would also be attractive to potential business and industry looking to locate there, as well as farmers, who are becoming increasingly driven by technology. Whether they’re raising livestock or growing crops, Thompson says the province sees farmers and the agri-food sector as a leading light for pandemic recovery. That being the case, she’ll be busy in the days, week and months ahead, looking after their interests – along with the rural communities that serve them.
“Small town Ontario goes hand in hand with the agri-food system,” says the minister. “They depend on each other and need each other to succeed.”
Open Dennis and Lisa’s bar fridge, check out their wine rack or peek inside their liqueur cabinet, and you’ll find these favourites...some developed just a stone’s throw from their Teeswater home.
1. Shindig – Huron County lager from Cowbell Brewing
2. Cream Lager – Stone House Brewing Company
3. Liqueurs from Junction 56 Distillery in Stratford
4. 3 in the Tree, and 4 on the Floor ciders from Hoity Toity Cellars
5. Any of the Ciders from East Street Cidery in Goderich
6. Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery 2020 Chardonnay (official 2022 white wine of the Ontario Legislature)
7. Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery 2019 Meritage (official 2022 red wine of the Ontario Legislature)
Many rural Ontario craft breweries, distilleries, wineries and cideries offer tastings and provide onsite sales. Visitors are welcome.
Dennis’s Sweet Corn Chowder Recipe