Feb 20, 2013 by Lee Hart

Eugene Whelan was IP in a political crop


I was sorry to read this week that Eugene Whelan, one of the
most colorful federal Agriculture Ministers in the last 100 years had died. He
was 88. My one notable claim is that I covered Whelan’s first speaking
engagement after he was appointed agriculture minister in 1972.

It was in the community of Avonmore, which is about an hour
south of Ottawa. I was editor/reporter of the weekly

eugene-whelan-2-jpg.jpg

 newspaper in the nearby
town of Chesterville, and I went to hear this guy speak at some community
meeting. He had just been named minister a few days before. I don’t remember
what he talked about, but he wore a green cowboy hat.

I also interviewed Eugene Whelan a few years ago, he was
well into his 80s at that time. That day he was sitting in the living room of his Amherstburg,
western Ontario home where he died this week. It was a sunny day, and he was
looking out across the Detroit River, with the U.S. on the other side of the
river. He had had a great day, the day before. He had spent four hours on a
small John Deere tractor with a front-mounted mower cutting the lawn of his
long-time home — a large river front lot 100 feet wide by 800 feet deep. (Photo by Victoria Times-Colonist)

WORKED OUT WEST

He asked me if I was any relation to a George Hart. He had
worked for a George Hart at High River, Alta in 1942. He was 18. “It was a
beautiful place,” said Whelan. “I worked there for 42 days straight, working in
the harvest. I first worked at Carstairs (Alta) stooking grain and then we
moved over to High River for threshing. I drove the bundle wagon. We were up
every morning at 4:30, got the horses harnessed, had breakfast shortly after 5,
and then we snuck up on those stooks. We stooked grain at home too, in Ontario.
The biggest lie they ever told me is that I wouldn’t have to work too hard in
the West because the bundles were lighter. They weren’t. But I loved Alberta, I
almost stayed.”

Whelan grew up on a small Ontario mixed farm — a few dairy
cows, 10-brood sows, and crops. His dad died when he was nine-years-old leaving
his mother with nine children. He started working when he was 16. He later
farmed himself, got involved in municipal politics at age 21, got into federal
politics in 1962 serving as agriculture minister from 1972 to 1983 and later
was appointed a senator from 1996 to 1999.

He ran a mixed-cropping operation himself growing soybeans,
wheat and corn as commodity crops and also sweet corn, tomatoes and peas for
food processing. He seeded clover as a green manure after wheat. He was the first farmer in his area to own a 12-foot wide self
propelled combine, so he also did quite a bit of custom combining.

“I remember one time when I was out West, someone asked me
what the hell I knew, coming from Ontario, about being minister of agriculture
and I said I knew just as much as Allen Blakeney premier of Saskatchewan who
was born in Nova Scotia, or Don Getty in Alberta who was born in Quebec or Bill
Vander Zalm in B.C. who came from Holland,” said Whelan. “The fact is that I
came from the most diversified farming region in the country, and we were
diversified farmers ourselves. We had it all and I was an agriculture minister
who really had hands on experience.”

 

STORIES FROM THE ROAD

His stories were many from his life and years in politics.
He was a strong supporter of supply management in the agriculture sector. He
was critical of the oil industry. “There is no oil shortage in the world, there
are ample reserves of energy if they’d just access it,” he said. “Prices are
high and they call it the law of supply and demand, while I call it the law of
managed supply.

“In agriculture I believe there is a place for supply
management. We guarantee a surplus of product, we guarantee farmers a fair
price and the efficient producer can make a good living. I have always said
there is nothing wrong with making a decent profit. But when you look at the vulgar
profits they make in the oil industry those people should be in jail.”

Early in his ag minister career he recalled making a tour
across the country and in each major city he stayed at the same hotel chain,
then called The Vancouver Inn, the Calgary Inn, the Regina Inn and so forth.

“So we had been in Vancouver one night and the next night we
were in Calgary having dinner at the Calgary Inn and I announced to the table
that the beef was much better in Calgary,” said Whelan. “And I think it was the
manager of the hotel who was with us and he kicked me under the table to stop
talking. He later told me the hotel chain bought all its beef from the U.S.
because they wanted quality and consistency. So there I was in Calgary eating
U.S. beef.”

KEPT IN CONTACT

Whelan said he felt he was a good minister of agriculture
because he kept in touch with farmers across the country during his 10 years in
office. He opened a western federal agriculture minister’s office in Regina, he
had a liaison officer in each province that worked for him and reported
directly on agricultural activities in that province. He read all the mail he
received and answered letters personally.

“So the process was if there was a farmer in Fort St. John
in the Peace River region who had a question they called the Regina office
first, and then Regina would pass on the message to me,” says Whelan. “There
was a three hour time difference but often I would be working in my office
until midnight and I’d get the message, so then I would return the call. “Is
this George Brown in Fort St. John? You had a question for the agriculture
minister? Well I’m on the phone, let’s talk.” And they’d be pretty shocked that
the agriculture minister had called. But I felt it was important to keep in
touch.”

Whelan said he often worked well into the night reading
every letter he received, and his staff checked when he left office in 1984 and
he had personally signed 18,970 letters “these just weren’t form letters, these
were letters from me that I signed personally.” Even in his 80s he still got
regular calls from farmers wanting to talk. The day of our interview he said
he’d just had a call from a retired hog producer from Riceton, Sask. who called
him about once a month — “sometimes we talk about politics, but mostly about
agriculture,” said Whelan. And people were calling him all the time.

And he read agricultural publications too. He liked the
Western Producer “the best farm magazine” and was still getting a subscription
at his home in later years. “When I was minister I liked reading The Producer
because that’s how I knew what my department was doing”. And the Country Guide
was okay too at times — “although as I recall they weren’t always kind to me.”

One comment on the grain industry from his world travels
followed an extended visit to the Ukraine. “They have so much potential, they
have rich black soil that runs 80 feet deep and we don’t have anything like
that,” he said. “I came back from there and I told Western farmers “you’d
better pray they stay Communists because if they ever get a system like ours,
you’ll never sell them another bushel of wheat.”

Lee
Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or
by email at
[email protected]

 

Lee Hart

Lee Hart


Lee Hart is a long-time farm writer, and honorary member of the Alberta Institute of Agrologists, with many observations on the agriculture industry, who never hesitates to admit he is wrong (should that ever happen.)


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