Farmers worry about foreign ownership

Chuck Fossay, a producer from Starbuck, Man., is concerned that foreign investors and pension funds could use local agents to buy farmland in the province.

Fossay said during a Keystone Agricultural Producers meeting in Portage la Prairie Oct. 29, that it’s fine for all Canadians to buy Manitoba farmland, but he wonders if some buyers are acting as fronts for foreigners or pension funds.

“Then, how do you (a farmer) compete for buying… land?” Fossay said. “I think there should be some rules around that.”

The Manitoba Farm Industry Board oversees the Farmland Ownership Act in Manitoba. Board vice-chair Bragi Simundsson, who answered producer questions at the Portage meeting, said producers concerned about the legality of a land purchase should notify the board and they will investigate.

The act allows foreign interests to own up to 40 acres of farmland in Manitoba. If a non-Canadian or corporation wants to buy farmland but doesn’t meet the act’s requirements, the ownership board will evaluate the case and grant an exemption if it’s in the best interest of Manitoba.

Typically, the board reviews about 50 exemption applications every year. The approval rate is about 90 percent.

Linda Nielsen, a producer from Starbuck, said the high rate of approvals is troubling.

“It looks like there aren’t very many applications that you refuse. It looks like it’s pretty easy for anybody to get farmland.”

Simundsson reiterated that the board only grants exemptions if it is in the best interest of Manitoba.

“There have been areas in Canada where pension funds have been trying to buy up large tracts of farmland. That’s a concern to us,” he said.

Judy Roeland, a provincial employee who manages the board, said most pension funds aren’t eligible to own farmland in the province.

But a pension fund would be eligible if it was completely Canadian, she said.

“Most pension plans, under our current legislation, in most cases would not be able to own farmland in Manitoba,” Roeland said.

Greg Perchaluk, board chair, said even a Canadian pension plan like the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund would have to apply for an exemption to Manitoba’s Farmland Ownership Act and prove that every recipient of the plan is a Canadian citizen or permanent resident.

Simundsson said the Manitoba Farm Industry Board has been evaluating weaknesses in the Farmland Ownership Act, but there is no formal timeline for changes.

If the provincial government asks the board to consider possible changes, they will consult with farmers and generate the appropriate recommendations.

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