Lawyer says land seen as investment, lifestyle

Ownership rules depend on vision for farming

Thirteen years ago, Ken Ziegler made a case before a legislative committee for more relaxed Saskatchewan farmland ownership laws.

The Saskatoon lawyer said the province needed new farmers and new capital.

“I think we’re suffering under a set of rules that perhaps made sense 30 years ago,” he said in a May 2002 interview after a presentation to the standing committee on agriculture.

As a result of those hearings, Ziegler got half of what he had hoped to see as a lawyer who works extensively in other countries to bring new farmers and agricultural business to Canada.

“We ended up with kind of half a cake,” he said in a recent interview.

The hearings then were to look at the existing rules, which prohibited anyone but Saskatchewan residents from owning farmland, and to possibly open it to other Canadians.

The second question was whether non-Canadians should be able to invest in, own and operate farmland in Saskatchewan.

“That half a cake was the first argument, basically putting us in a position where we opened up the door to investors east and west of us,” Ziegler said. “The second piece never did change.”

Non-Canadians and foreign companies are still limited to 10 acres even after the 2002 changes opened ownership to other Canadians. Now, a purchase by the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board has stirred up the question again.

Ziegler said he won’t participate in the current farmland ownership review, even though he still works extensively with people from other countries who want to invest in land or farm it themselves.

“We constantly get approached by outside investors from Europe, from the Americas, from Asia, who are interested in acquiring farmland,” he said.

He also works with Canadian food processing associations on trade trips to those regions.

He said he doubts his opinion would have much impact on the decision-makers, but he has strong thoughts about what is at stake.

For him, the key question is what farming will look like in the years ahead. Who owns the land follows from that.

“Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve met the person yet who can give us their vision of what that looks like,” he said.

“It could be right-sizing. It could be intensive farming. It could be massive corporate farming. It could be all of the above. Depending on how you answer that question also helps drive in my mind the policy decisions that the decision-makers, the politicians, should be making.”

He said someone has to decide which model is desirable.

Ziegler’s law practice is international, and he spends about three months each year in his offices in China and Southeast Asia.

He said Canada needs to be in those markets, and developing a customer base relies on strong relationships.

“The people who control these markets are highly sophisticated, well connected, long established people that we need to develop relationships with and maybe do some bilateral investment,” he said.

As a Saskatchewan resident, he sees how the issue is approached from two sides. The attachment to land is strong, and agriculture drives so many other sectors of the economy.

“There’s a professional side to this, a business side,” he said. “But it’s also who we are, it’s how we were bred and raised. It’s what we’re made up of, in many ways.”

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