As a fan of rodeos and motorcycles, Manitoba’s new agriculture minister should have no trouble dealing with the political bumps and bruises that go with being on the government side of the legislature.
But he expects he will have to adapt.
“Being in opposition, (since first elected in June 2003) is one thing and being in government is another,” Ralph Eichler said in an interview May 6. “I am a workaholic… I am going to have a hard time pulling back from my responsibilities.”
The 66-year-old MLA for Lakeside, and longtime resident of Teulon, was sworn in as Manitoba’s 38th minister of agriculture May 2 at the Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg, with 11 other Progressive Conservatives and Premier Brian Pallister.
The PCs made history electing 40 MLAs April 19, defeating the NDP who governed for almost 17 years. Equally remarkable is that eight of the 12 new cabinet ministers are from rural ridings.
This includes senior posts such as finance going to Morden-Winkler’s Cameron Friesen and infrastructure to Midland’s Blaine Pederson, the PC’s former agriculture critic. Portage MLA, farmer and former Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) president Ian Wishart is the new minister of education and training. Steinbach MLA Kelvin Goertzen, whose grandfather farmed in the area, is minister of health, seniors and active living and government house leader.
And while Pallister represents a Winnipeg constituency, he was raised on a farm near Portage la Prairie where family members still farm.
Some rural Manitobans saw the previous government as ambivalent at best and hostile at worst on issues beyond Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway.
If appointing two-thirds of his cabinet from rural Manitoba wasn’t proof enough, Pallister cemented his rural credibility by reciting, with a catch in his voice and tears in his eyes, the 4-H pledge following his swearing in.
“I pledge my head to clear thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service and my health to better living for my province, my country and our earth,” he said solemnly.
Keystone Agricultural Producers president Dan Mazier likes what he sees.
“Hearing the premier of your province talking about 4-H… he’s not going to forget about his upbringing in rural Manitoba,” Mazier said from his farm near Justice May 6. “He knows Manitoba. I thought it gave agriculture a good signal… and I think it was a good message.”
Previous agriculture ministers often said they had to get fellow cabinet ministers on side in the previous government, Mazier said.
“Well, when you look at the whole cabinet and eight of them are rural people that’s pretty good odds,” he said.
Perhaps Manitoba hog farmers felt the most picked on by the previous government. Manitoba Pork maintains the 2008 moratorium on hog barn construction went too far. Last year the province loosened the rules.
“I have a hunch that this government will be more farming friendly and also hog industry friendly,” Manitoba Pork chair George Matheson said from his farm at Stonewall May 6.
“We’ve had lots of talks with him (Eichler) when he was in the opposition and he always seemed to be sympathetic to our needs so I’m very much looking forward to having Ralph as our ag minister,” said Matheson, who farms in Eichler’s riding and has known him for years.
Manitoba Pork wants Eichler to help lobby the federal government on truck-washing regulations at the border, to improve risk management programs and for assistance in financing new barns.
Rural Manitobans have high hopes for the new government, but are they too high?
“You always aim high,” Eichler said. “Our leader ran on ‘aim higher,’ and we’re proud of that fact.”
Rural Manitoba will have a stronger voice in government, Eichler said. But he added: “Nevertheless we will govern for all Manitobans and put their priorities first. That is what we were elected to do.”
Mazier said he thinks Eichler has the right stuff. He served eight years in the Manitoba legislature as agriculture critic (2003-11), but was also the critic of Government Services, the Communities Economic Development Fund, Manitoba Hydro, Co-operative Development, Industry, Economic Development & Mines, Conservation, Water Stewardship, Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, Infrastructure and Transportation, Emergency Measures and served as PC caucus chair.
“He comes with a good perspective,” Mazier said. “I think that will bode well for agriculture and for all of Manitoba…”
In private life Eichler, who moved from the United States to Canada in 1969, raised purebred Simmentals and a commercial herd. He even competed in rodeo in the calf and team-roping events.
“I bulldogged once or twice but didn’t do so good at it, and I also got involved with bucking horses a couple of times but didn’t do much there either,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to ride with your eyes closed.
“They loved me being there because I didn’t win many purses.”
Eichler used to own and operate Prairie Farm and Ranch Supply, a major manufacturer and importer and exporter of livestock-handling equipment. Eichler had global success marketing an innovative Manitoba invention called the ‘Stockdoctor’ — a spring-loaded syringe on a long pole that allows ranchers to medicate cattle on pasture. Eichler still owns Ray’s Auction Services in Teulon.
Eichler, who was also appointed to Treasury Board, which oversees government spending, said it’s a good fit with the agriculture portfolio.
Eichler was still getting his feet under him last week, but already had high praise for his staff.
“I rely on them right off the bat to give me briefing notes and get me up to speed on what things look like,” he said. “My Deputy Minister Dori (Gingera-Beauchemin) has agreed to stay on and I am just tickled to death about that. And of course with her comes a strong department that has been there through the long term. We will address a number of issues as they come forward, but there’s also a lot of stuff that’s in the basket that needs to be moved on so I look forward to that opportunity.”
KAP wants the new government to fill vacancies in Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. It also wants more money spent on agricultural research and innovation and to help young farmers. Eichler said it was too soon to comment on those requests.
KAP is also curious about how the Sustainable Development department will work. It’s responsible for drainage, water stewardship and conservation. Mazier said current regulations prohibiting most fertilizer and manure applications between November 10 and April 10, need to be more flexible.
Eichler wouldn’t say if that would change, but did say he is committed to science-based decisions.
“I always say, and believe strongly, that the farmers are the best stewards of the land,” he said. “They know they need it not just for this generation, but for generations to come and they are going to ensure that it’s there.
“So much has changed and we’re looking forward to opportunities for those changes. Science will be part of it, but common sense is a part of it and we also have to look at the way technology has changed. It’s exciting times.”