Retiring farmers have many reasons for not wanting to sell their land, and there are alternatives, says Duane Guina, executive director of Farmland Legacies, a registered, non-profit charity, which holds agricultural land in trust and promotes sustainable values.
“Some don’t like the direction that agriculture is going in,” Guina says.
He says issues some retiring farmers have with selling their land are family histories tied to the property, certain practices the farm has operated under such as wildlife friendly or organic that they would like to see continued. As an alternative to selling, some farmers might consider donating some or all of their farm to Farmland Legacies.
The organization had its beginnings in the late 1980s and officially came into being in 1996.
“It was a time of farm crisis,” says Guina. “There were debt moratoriums, people were losing land to financial institutions because it was over leveraged.”
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“We don’t hear the alarming stories so much now but farm debt across Canada is still very real. It has grown from over $5 billion in the 1970s to over $65 billion by 2011.”
The Farmland Legacies founding group was ecumenical with representatives from the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran and Mennonite faiths. Concern over farm debt inspired them to look at alternatives. They also wanted to model a way of farming that was more sustainable.
The Home Quarter, agricultural headquarters of Farmland Legacies, is located on an organic farm near Little Quill Lake near Wynyard, Sask. It aims to be a model for sustainable land use. The farm’s output, which includes a herd of cattle, supports Saskatchewan food banks.
On-site facilities, when fully developed, are expected to provide living quarters and educational space for participants and visitors.
Funding comes from from grants, private donations and revenue from the farm. Eventually, the goal is to no longer require donations, says Guina.
Trent Watts grew up on a mixed farm near Lloydminster, on the Alberta side, with his parents and two sisters. His great-uncle, Tom, lived on a half section next to theirs.
“This was land he had homesteaded, and in the way of those times the house was built closer to the centre than the edge of the property,” Watts says. He has many fond memories of visiting his uncle, of skating on the big slough on his farm, of picking rocks, helping him with his cattle.
He spent a lot of time playing with his cousin along the banks of the coulee that ran through the farm, looking for beavers and hunting ducks as he got older. He remembers the amazing prairie flowers: crocuses, brown-eyed susans and the saskatoon bushes. There was a big rock they thought was probably a buffalo rubbing stone, and acres and acres of wild prairie grasses.
“Somehow that seeps into your soul and becomes a part of who you are. You don’t know it is happening at the time,” he says. “It informs a lot of what is still important in my life today.”
As a young adult, he would come back with his wife, Cathy, and children and visit Uncle Tom. When Tom died in the early 1970s, he willed his farm to Watts.
Watts rented it out for a few years. He took his kids there but he knew they would never farm.
There had been some surprise about his uncle’s decision to leave his farm to his nephew. As he pondered what he would do with the land, that was in his thoughts. He also thought a lot about the land and the prairie grasses on it — a portion of the half section had never been under the plow
“I started imagining what the potential of this was. I really wanted the land to be farmed in a way that would preserve as much as possible the native plants and the history of the land,” Watts says.
He looked at Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy but when he found an article in the United Church Observer about Farmland Legacies something told him this would be the best fit.
He wrote to his children, his sisters and the nieces and nephews and told them what he was thinking. He told them he wanted to have their blessing before going ahead.
“Everyone was fine with that,” he says. “We went on the land, walked it as much as we could so that everyone understood what was going to happen.
“It was not about making money on this land. It was about being a good steward.”