Sunday April 26, 2015

Should institutional and foreign investors get to buy Saskatchewan farmland?

The view from a grain truck, waiting for a load of freshly-harvested chickpeas, on a farm near Assiniboia, Sask.

The view from a grain truck, waiting for a load of freshly-harvested chickpeas, on a farm near Assiniboia, Sask. (Courtesy Paul Dornstauder)

Several provinces have rules about who can purchase their farm land, and Saskatchewan's are now up for review. We hear from two lifelong farmers with opposite points of view on whether the province's agricultural land should be on the global market, and available for purchase by foreign and institutional investors.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board bought a parcel of Saskatchewan farmland in 2013. It saw that fertile prairie soil as a good investment. But a lot of people questioned whether it was good for the province.

Now the provincial government has frozen future sales of agricultural land to institutional investors, and launched public consultations into how sales to international buyers or pension plans should be regulated in the future.

That's a big issue in Saskatchewan, where there are very strict rules about who can and can't own the land. For one thing, foreign investors can't buy more than 10 acres. It's been that way since 1974 when the NDP government of the day created the Farm Land Security Board.

Deb Smith is a grain farmer in Kindersley, who hopes her farm and others like it always stay in the hands of Saskatchewan residents. 

Jim Zinkhan's family has farmed the same land near Regina since 1893. But now he's ready to sell and wants to get a good price. He believes that by opening up the market to more buyers, he's likely to get a better deal. 

"It's kind of the pie in the sky attitude of why can't we go back to the way things were in the nineteen-fifties. In the nineteen-fifties there was lots of people making a living on a quarter section of land. Nowadays, that's impossible."
- Saskatchewan farmer Jim Zinkhan

He says the restrictions on selling land are based on an idea of the family farm that hardly exists anymore.

"Like basically it's kind of the pie in the sky attitude of why can't we go back to the way things were in the nineteen-fifties. In the nineteen-fifties there was lots of people making a living on a quarter section of land. Nowadays, that's impossible"

He says that mega-farming is the only way to make a living now and the cost of land and equipment make put that out of reach of potential young farmers. He says it's better to let big investors carry the risk of investment and let local people earn their living from actually working on the land.

"If you don't live in this province, and your kids aren't registered in our schools, and you aren't involved in our community, then you don't own our most valuable resource: our land." - Saskatchewan farmer Deb Smith

Deb Smith is also a lifelong farmer. Along with her husband Ron and her son Derek, she raises grain near Kindersley Saskatchewan. She still says there's a future for young farmers in the province, but they need to be given the chance. 

"The family farm life is not gone. There are still lots and lots of family farms. This generation of farmers has a lot bigger picture than that. They are looking at farming a lot more acres. These guys are smart, they use technology, they're go-getters and they'll do just fine."

But Smith believes that taking away restrictions on ownership will make it impossible for the next generation to give it a shot. And she's very concerned about what foreign ownership will mean for the province.

"If you don't live in this province, and your kids aren't registered in our schools, and you aren't involved in our community, then you don't own our most valuable resource: our land."