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Farmers to lose veteran Ottawa correspondent

Farmers to lose veteran Ottawa correspondentBarry Wilson, correspondent for the Western Producer, is seen in his office in the Press Building near Parliament Hill Thursday, January 16, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - While his press gallery peers criss-crossed the country over the years in the bubble of leaders' campaigns, Barry Wilson liked to fly under the mainstream radar with his own custom-made election tour.

Wilson, who retires this month after 34 years as the Western Producer's Ottawa correspondent, would drive across the country in rented cars writing about candidates and issues in rural ridings.

In an era of leader-driven politics and breathless 24/7 tweeting on this or that gaffe, you might say Wilson is a bit of a subversive.

"It was just talking to the candidates and others about issues like the Wheat Board, gun control, rural infrastructure, getting them on the record on things that mattered to my readers that wouldn't typically get covered," Wilson said in an interview.

"I think (readers) thought that was the only place they were getting the bigger picture of what people like them were thinking elsewhere, which they took some comfort in that they weren't alone."

Wilson, 65, is one of the deans of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, having arrived on Parliament Hill in 1980. He's originally from the Pontiac region of Quebec north of Ottawa, where his family has owned a farm for five generations.

After graduating from Carleton University, he worked for papers in New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan. In 1972, while working for the Oshawa Times as a political editor, he watched as the entire federal election came down to a riding he covered — the Liberal candidate Norm Caffik ultimately winning by only four votes and securing a minority for Pierre Trudeau over Tory Leader Bob Stanfield.

"That was very dramatic and it was very intense. There were sign defacements and Caffik's windows were broken by marauding Conservatives when he won."

And Wilson does love politics.

He firmly identifies himself as a political reporter rather than an agriculture reporter, who watches policy and politics for the Western Producer, an agricultural newspaper that targets western Canadian farmers. His beat has included health, transportation and international trade.

Every agriculture minister from Eugene Whelan to Gerry Ritz has needed to know Barry Wilson. The most recent ones have learned he refuses to print emailed statments in lieu of real-live interviews.

"Agriculture can very easily get taken for granted, but it remains an important part of the GDP, a key factor in terms of our balance of trade, it's a big chunk of the economies of several provinces," said former Liberal agriculture minister Ralph Goodale.

"Everyone gets into the action when there's some major disaster that's unfolding, but Barry is there to provide that ongoing sustained narrative about how the industry is doing."

Many of his colleagues might not realize Wilson's secret — he has one of the best journalism gigs around. He brags that he essentially drew up his own job description, and made international food policy one of his beats.

That has meant international travel every year to meetings of the World Trade Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He has also covered droughts in Africa for the paper.

"Farmers are by and large tremendously interested in world food issues, and they get it," said Wilson, who notes the support that producers give to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

"They actually understand we live in a land of plenty, and so many people don't."

Wilson has watched with fascination a wholescale change in how the federal government deals with agricultural producers, gradually scaling back Ottawa's role in the marketplace as well as its financial support for farmers who hit rough times.

He says the buoyant markets farmers are seeing now won't last forever, and then there will be trouble. He says a big story that is being overlooked is the amount of debt that farmers are in — $70 billion as of 2012, from $22 billion in 1993.

"So it's risen exponentially and it's based on really low interest rates. They've just been borrowing more and more, and they never pay it down," said Wilson.

"The US average national debt level for farmers is about half of what Canada's is comparatively, which is a huge competitive advantage for the US because they don't have the debt-servicing charges of Canadian farmers."

Wilson cuts a lonely figure on the agriculture beat, as newsroom cuts have meant far fewer beat reporters around the press gallery. Thirty years ago, Wilson says up to seven others would sit in on agriculture committee meetings. Now he's usually on his own, unless a major crisis such as the XL Foods e-coli scare hits the news.

The white-haired marathon runner and lay United minister laments that Canadians generally don't know enough about where their food comes from.

"Urban coverage tends to be nice features about this mythical old-fashioned farm or about a crisis — your food not being safe," said Wilson, who in 2012 was inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame.

"Unfortunately there isn't a whole lot of good educational journalism about the food system and where your food comes from, the risks, the benefits. That's a constant agricultural complaint."

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