Robert Pasuta is a man who loves the land.
He’s worked the same acres of earth his entire life, growing grain corn, soybeans, winter wheat. It’s the same soil his father worked, the same land that has supported his wife and seven children.
Until six years ago, it was the only job he ever had.
Today, Pasuta divides his time between his farm and City Hall, where he represents Flamborough on city council. He sits through hours of committee meetings when he should be planting crops. When it’s harvest time, he’ll stay awake for two, three days at a time, spending all day at the council table and all night behind the wheel of his tractor.
He’s the only city councillor with two full-time jobs — both equally demanding but worlds apart.
Though Hamilton is 65 per cent rural, Pasuta is the lone agricultural voice on city council. And in an era when family farms like Pasuta’s are disappearing, when cities are more and more reliant on imported, factory-farmed food, Hamilton’s farmers say Pasuta’s perspective is crucial.
“Everything we eat, consume and need comes from agriculture,” said Roy Shuker, a Stoney Creek farmer and president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Federation of Agriculture. “I think the city needs to recognize that it’s an important part of our life.”
Pasuta’s farm, 122 acres just off Highway 6 that kiss the lake at Mountsberg Conservation Area, doesn’t even feel like Hamilton. Drive one more turnoff up the highway and you’re in Wellington County. Pasuta lives farther from City Hall — 36 kilometres — than any of his council colleagues.
“I remember when I first came to council, word was, ‘What does he know? He’s just a farmer.’ That’s changed for sure,” Pasuta says. “It’s a city that’s amalgamated. It’s got the urban and the rural. You need someone that understands it.”
Most days at City Hall, there’s little to differentiate Pasuta from the rest of his colleagues. Like them, he dresses in dark suits and ties, maybe a nice pair of jeans. His hands, as big as catcher’s mitts, and his cowboy boots, which peek out from the cuffs of his pant legs, are the only things that hint at his life on the farm.
What makes Pasuta stand out are the snapshots he gives into a life that seems entirely foreign in the urban-focused world of City Hall. At the end of their biweekly televised meeting, councillors each make announcements about events in their wards — invitations to community dinners, information about neighbourhood cleanups, pleas for attendance at fundraisers.
Not Pasuta. He talks about how the weather’s affecting crops, what’s being planted, whether it’s too wet or too dry.
At a recent debate about how the city should dispose of biosolids — the gooey, spongy byproduct of sewage treatment — urban councillors wanted to continue applying it on farmers’ fields as fertilizer. Not only would it be the cheapest option, but it would keep a potential alternative — an incinerator — out of the lower city. The urban councillors were pushing hard, arguing that using it as fertilizer is safe, cheap, and easy.
But Pasuta agued that whatever council decides to put on the land — including the chemicals, traces of medicine and heavy metals that can lurk inside biosolids — is absorbed into crops.
“Personally, I don’t use any of the biosolids. I wouldn’t, knowing what’s in it, and at some point in time, my product is going to end up on someone’s table somewhere,” he said. “I have a great concern. I think we really need to think hard about this. I’m going to put the emphasis on local food, good food, healthy food.”
For someone with a background in the common-sense world of farming, the politics and lengthy meetings at City Hall can be frustrating. He tries to mix the two as best as he can. He’ll listen to Bill Kelly’s talk radio show in his tractor and call in from his cellphone while he’s working the fields.
“You’ve gone from one of the most respectable jobs — a farmer — to a position which is way down the list. That’s what people say,” Pasuta said.
It’s being out in the community, advocating and helping local farmers, that makes the job worthwhile. It’s why he decided to run in the 2006 election. Pasuta had already spent time lobbying at City Hall as president of the Hamilton Wentworth Pork Producers — he gave up farming pigs when he took up politics — and the Hamilton Wentworth Federation of Agriculture. He won by just under 1,000 votes. The night he won, he promised to “promote agriculture and the rural way of life.”
When the 2010 election rolled around, Pasuta threw his hat into the ring once again. No one ran against him.
There are rumours Pasuta will run for mayor in 2014. He won’t say either way.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to do the councillor thing again,” he said. “I feel like if I was to walk away — I’ve helped a lot of people. I feel like I would be leaving them to the wolves — the rural people.”
Like many of his constituents, Pasuta’s not sure what will happen to his farm down the road. According to Canada’s 2011 census of agriculture, there are more farmers over 55 than any other age category. (Pasuta himself turns 59 on Sunday.) None of his seven kids has plans to take over.
Pasuta’s wife, Elaine, understands why. It’s a tough, risky life to take on.
“It’s a little different than when we started,” she said. “I don’t see how you could make a dollar off it. To have it as your sole income — it’s just not possible anymore.”
The fate of family farms will have more of an impact on Hamilton than we realize, the Pasutas say. We’ll have less control over what we eat, more recalls, more diseases spread through our food.
It’s reasons like these that people like Shuker are glad Pasuta is at the council table, raising awareness about the lifestyle and land they love.
“I think he works hard,” Shuker says of Pasuta. “Probably too hard.”