Foreign ownership of Sask. farmland increasing ‘rapidly’

Investment ownership increased 16-fold from 2002 to present, prompts calls for social investment in land

Outside investors own a small but rapidly expanding share of Saskatchewan farmland, according to research conducted by the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

The group analyzed the change in farmland ownership from 2002-14 to see how relaxing ownership regulations has affected the province.

In 2002, the NDP government changed the regulations to allow ownership by all Canadians. It had previously been restricted to Sask­atchewan residents.

“We saw a rapid increase in investor ownership of the land,” said Nettie Wiebe, former National Farmers Union president and Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidate who co-authored the school’s policy brief.

Holdings by investors increased to 837,019 acres last year from 51,957 acres in 2002. The list includes non-farmer investors, investment companies, pension plans and farmer-investor hybrids.

The last category is a little murky because it includes people such as businessperson Cor Van Raay, who Wiebe said is clearly an investor but also lives in the province and actively manages some of the land he owns.

Collectively, investors own 1.44 percent of the province’s farmland.

“On coffee row, when people say, ‘oh, it’s a small amount, it’s a drop in the bucket,’ they’re completely right,” said Wiebe.

“But it’s the change in ownership that I think needs to be focused on.”

Investors owned .09 percent of the province’s farmland in 2002, so there has been a 16-fold increase since then.

She said the trend line points to continued growth in investor holdings, with some accumulating large plots of land.

The farmland ownership debate was reignited in December 2013 when the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board bought 115,000 acres from Assiniboia Capital for $128 million.

However, it isn’t the largest investor landholder in the province. Robert Andjelic and Andjelic Land Inc. own 160,858 acres, and HCI Ventures Ltd., an investment firm owned by Alberta’s Hokanson family, owns more than 100,000 acres in Saskatchewan.

By contrast, the largest landholding in 2002 was 24,296 acres owned by the Hutterite Hillcrest colony.

The government is seeking feedback on farmland ownership through an online survey, which Wiebe said is disappointing.

“The questions don’t really reflect a concern about the capitalization of land and the possession of it by deep pockets from elsewhere,” she said.

She thinks the province should be focusing more on social investment in land.

“The huge investment of care and labour that farm families put into land is in some ways overlooked or maybe even completely devalued when you only prioritize financial investment,” said Wiebe.

An example of social investment is what has occurred on her farm near Saskatoon.

“We planted thousands of trees around the yard and built buildings which will way outlast our own farming career, and the hope is that the next generation will find it useful,” she said.

Wiebe doesn’t believe an investor from Alberta has the same commitment to the land or the community as a farm family that is directly deriving its living from the property.

Other policy options the group feels are worth considering include restricting the use of farmland to agricultural production, placing a cap on how much land a person or investor can own and implementing rent controls.

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