By Connor Lynch
BROOKE TOWNSHIP — Former mixed-operation farmer and federal Minister of Agriculture Ralph Ferguson died last month at 91.
By turns a cash crop, egg and beef farmer, Ferguson was prolific in politics and with farm organizations. From Junior Farmers he went on to the Egg Producers association and was a charter member of the National Farm Products Marketing Council from 1972 to 1976.
Ferguson played a foundational role in making national supply management official Liberal Party policy. He was part of the group of farmers that wrote the original policy, was Ontario’s representative to the national council that negotiated quotas with provincial commodity groups and wrote the foundational policies for farm product marketing laws.
Elected MP for Lambton-Middlesex in 1980, he ran on a ballot promoting ethanol-blended fuels, which are a huge market for Ontario corn today. After a few different roles he ended up as Minister of Agriculture briefly in 1984.
He was also one of the first to take stock of the agricultural supply chain. While comparing farmgate to grocery store prices is common now, it wasn’t then. Ferguson spearheaded the idea with his Compare the Share study, the first done in 1991, where even then he noted that “current prices for farm commodities do not allow for sustainable agriculture.”
Ferguson’s legacy is as much to do with the foundations he laid as the things he accomplished, including paving the way for Ontario’s ethanol industry, said Lambton County farmer and OFA director Don McCabe, who first met Ferguson when McCabe was still in high school. He understood that “there’s no real value brought to an economy or a society until you have tangible outcomes,” and was happy to either take charge or work on a team to make it happen, McCabe said.
Ferguson retired in 1993 and turned his attention to a series of seemingly-endless interests, including a short film about the history of local Scotch pioneers and a community cancer survey. Ferguson was inducted into the Lambton, Middlesex, and Ontario agricultural halls of fame.
Lambton County grain farmer and National Farmers Union President Emery Huszka remembers working with Ferguson straight out of University. “If you only get to pick one word to describe a person, respect was his. And he got it by giving it.” A humble man and a “real people’s representative, regardless of political stripe,” Huszka said. Ferguson was also a wealth of agricultural knowledge. “I wish his mind was in a complete book.”
Being a farmer of many commodities helps explain how Ferguson was so instrumental in so many different success stories for so many different commodities. “He saw agriculture for the big picture that it is, and he loved all of it.”
Said Huszka, who’s had his own political career as NFU president: “I’ve dealt with lots of people. Ralph sticks out as a class act.”