Farmer Terry Boehm is concerned about the future of his community and other farming towns as the price of land creeps up. (Photo: Sam Samson/CBC)
Saskatchewan farmers, researchers worry investor-bought land 'empties out the countryside'
by Yasmine Ghania
As Terry Boehm sits on a tractor-powered snowblower on a cold winter day and clears a path to his shop, the grain and seed producer thinks about a more important path: the one his town and its young farmers will travel moving forward.
Boehm comes from a long line of farmers near Colonsay, Sask., starting from when his great grandfather arrived more than 100 years ago to the area, about 50 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon.
Saskatchewan, a resource-rich province, makes up about 40 per cent of Canada's farmland. Family farms like Boehm's own the vast majority of it, but researchers say large agriculture companies or investors who rent out farmland now control about two per cent.
Boehm, who has long advocated for farmers' rights, and researchers say this trend could speed up rising costs and force smaller, local farmers to expand or get out of the industry altogether, which could ultimately lead to fewer people in small rural communities.
"This is creating a situation where farmers are really the cash cow to be milked on every teat," Boehm told CBC News.
André Magnan, an associate professor in the department of sociology and social studies at the University of Regina, said that in the last decade and a half, more institutional investors, private investors and corporations have become interested in owning farmland in Saskatchewan.
"The amount of land that they own across the board is not huge in terms of percentage, but in certain cases they may own tens of thousands of acres or even more sometimes," he said.
Magnan said buying farmland is used as a strategy to diversify a person or company's portfolio and to hedge risks such as inflation.
While it's a good investment, it's a blow to small towns, Magnan said.
"What we're finding is that ownership is in fewer and fewer hands and that has a really tangible effect on local communities. It empties out the countryside," he said.
He and Boehm worry that if fewer people are involved in agriculture, it will be more difficult to sustain services such as schools and hospitals in small towns.
"Most communities are withering. There simply aren't enough people," Boehm said.
"Just being able to have enough people to be engaged in the day-to-day requirements of operating in a small community, it falls on less and less shoulders."
Katherine Aske, a field co-ordinator at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Farm, was recently part of a research team based at the University of Manitoba looking into how farmland tenure is changing on the Prairies.
She said the market value of farmland in Alberta is now completely disconnected from how much farmers can make on the land through producing.
"This is a massive problem," Aske said.
"As farmland prices rise, this becomes more of a pervasive problem because fewer and fewer actors or people are able to purchase land at all."
Land ownership rules
Saskatchewan's land ownership rules changed almost two decades ago. Until 2003, people had to live in Saskatchewan to own land in the province. Now, ownership is open to Canadians or Canadian companies that are not publicly traded.
"It's really since those rules were changed … that you've seen investor groups and other wealthy individuals acquire quite a bit of land," Magnan said.
"With a lot of inflation I expect to see a lot more interest in purchasing farmland by non-farmers."
Saskatchewan still has some of the strictest land ownership rules in Canada. However, the province does grant exemptions — many on the condition that owners rent out to locals.
Annette Desmarais, Canada Research Chair in human rights, social justice and food sovereignty at the University of Manitoba, said renting land can have its problems, including landlords not taking care of the land enough or creating strict rules.
"What if you wanted to start farming organically and you were renting land from an investor who's not interested in organic farming? Your autonomy to make decisions about how you want to farm are going to be affected," Desmarais said.
One of the largest investors in Saskatchewan land is Robert Andjelic, who rents out more than 225,000 acres.
He said tenants bid on his land and therefore control the prices.
"If you get 10 bidders, they're the ones that dictate the price," he said.
Andjelic said renting offers farmers a chance to start or grow their careers without the risks of ownership — as long as they take care of the land.
"Land is our bread and butter. We have to take care of it the best we can, return the nutrients and everything else back to it, and not just mine it. We farm it, not mine it. If they mine it, they're not going to be my tenant," he said.
Canadian farmers and academics, including Desmarais, are fighting for protections against agricultural monopolies amid concern that investors will make up an even larger chunk of the land ownership base.
"Assuming that most people would want to see many more farms, many more opportunities for young farmers to be able to access, then you develop policy to make sure that that happens," Desmarais said.
Some researchers say provinces should hike taxes to discourage vast land ownership. Others want caps on how much land one operation can own.
But the province's agriculture minister says the Saskatchewan Party won't go down that road.
"If someone wants to come along and offer me X-amount of dollars for my property, that should be my choice to have the right to sell it," David Marit said in a recent interview with CBC News.
"But if the government puts a policy in that says 'no, you can't sell it to him because he's hit his cap,' and you have to sell it to someone else, you know what you've done? You've controlled the whole sale of land."
When asked if he's concerned about the harm to small towns and disappearing farmers, Marit said "we're just seeing evolution in time."
"The community I came from 15 years ago lost a school too, as well, just because of people moving on, you were seeing this intergenerational change in farming," he said.
"That just seems to be what's happening."
As for farmer Terry Boehm, he said he does want to sell or rent his land when he gets older. He is adamant on keeping his town alive.
"You can't control everything. My preference would be to sell to a local farmer that's still living in the area or to a younger person that wants to start up in agriculture," he said.