Strong voice lost

In the 20 years that I’ve been a reporter, I’ve met probably thousands of people. Most of them have been kind, some have been rude. Luckily most have been helpful and eager to tell their story.

Sometimes I’ve been lucky to meet someone who has a passion burning deep in their soul — someone who loves what they do and has such a story they have to tell, that it’s all they can talk about.

Patton MacDonald was like that.

Patton passed away on Thanksgiving weekend. He was the former executive director of the New Brunswick Potato Agency (which changed its name to Potatoes New Brunswick) and former manager of the Nova Scotia Cattle Commission.

I knew him best when he was at the potato agency and I was working for the local daily newspaper. My beat was the entire region — whatever the news was happening — and since my base was in the heart of the province’s potato belt, agriculture topics became regular stories for me.

I think I had about four phone numbers for Patton — two cell phones, an office number and a direct line. I knew that if I couldn’t reach him, he would call me back as soon as he could. I also knew that if I didn’t reach him when I needed to, I could keep calling him until I did reach him.

And he knew that he could always call me with story ideas, comments or concerns. He also knew that he could chat and rant and give me the background of an issue without the rant (necessarily) going into print.

We shared a mutual respect.

Here’s how the conversations usually went: I would call him to find out about an issue. I would keep calling every hour until I reached him, or he would call me at about 10 p.m. I would ask him a question then listen to him talk for about 45 minutes about matters sort of related to the question, but not really. He was usually on his way someplace and in a hurry. Near the end of the conversation, I would nail down a comment from him about whatever it was that I called to talk about.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say he helped do more for the province’s potato industry — and for that matter — New Brunswick agriculture — during his time at the agency than has been done in the last 20 years.

Patton was on top of Canada-United States potato trade issues, negotiating with trade officials for reduced barriers. He promoted farm safety and helped implement a farm equipment signage program. And when New Brunswick potato farmers were faced with labour shortages and were struggling to get their crops in from the fields, he helped set up a labour hotline, which expanded to a rural labour hotline — helping put farmers and woodlot owners get in touch with willing workers. He was instrumental in starting the New Brunswick Potato Conference, an annual two-day professional development meeting held every February during a snow storm (I never did figure out how he managed that!).

Nothing Patton did was done alone. Whatever project he tackled he had teams working with him and everyone should share the applause. But Patton was a driving force on getting the word out there about agriculture. He didn’t create the news, but he championed the work of New Brunswick farmers. Now, it seems, reporters have to go looking for agriculture news.

It’s sad when a strong voice is silenced. Even though Patton hadn’t been speaking out loudly about New Brunswick agriculture for some time, I hope another champion can be found. Patton can never be replaced, but the work he did helping promote the province’s agriculture industry shouldn’t be lost.

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