The VANISHING LAND

Roy MacGregor May 12 1980

The VANISHING LAND

Roy MacGregor May 12 1980

The VANISHING LAND

Roy MacGregor

Up! be stirring, be alive,

Get upon a farm and th rive!

He ’s a king upon a th rone Who has acres of his own!

— Alexander McLachlan,

1818-1896

Ah, spring—the time of seed, sun and soft shower. Planting time, when Canada’s one million farmers are driven by nature to raise a traditional stink. But this year there is much more than mere fertilizer souring the wind. Twice toward the end of April angry farmers marched on Parliament Hill, their rough handmade signs—IT’S NO JOKE, I’M GOING BROKE; LOTS OF MEAT AND POTATOES BUT NO GRAVY—waving like drowning hands over their green-capped heads. To a farmer in the spring of 1980, it seems nothing short of absurd that a recent Gallup poll would argue that his lot is seen as preferable to the city dweller’s by more Canadians than at any other time in the past three decades. And as for Alexander McLachlan’s “Up! be stirring, be alive”—to that they would add be damnedl Too many of today’s farmers would be much more in agreement with the early Canadian poet’s later discovery that he was having an even worse time with farming than with inspired verse. He turned instead to work as a tailor. At least that is a profession where a thread is worth hanging on to.

Dairy quota and beef disasters aside, the 1970s may well have been what Gordon MacEachern, president of the Agricultural Economics Research Council of Canada, calls “a golden era.” The future, unfortunately, may be cowering in a computer model of Canadian agriculture which exists, in an incomplete form, on the 20th floor of the Environment Canada building in Hull, Quebec, and which suggests a possible date for doomsday at 2050 AD. That is the moment when domestic food demand could exceed domestic supply. The date could be set back by technological developments but, as Ted Manning of Environment Canada points out, “as far as believing someone will develop peaches which grow in the Arctic, you may as well bank on winning the lottery.” The date could just as easily be moved closer, particularly in light of a recent United Nations-supported study which

argues that, at the present pace of urban sprawl, land abandonment, climate change and desert growth, fully onethird of the world’s cropland may disappear by the turn of the century. Canada, which already supplies 10 per cent of the world’s food, may soon be forced to carry a far larger burden.

But the concerns of Canadian farmers this spring are more immediate and domestic:

• The Incredible Shrinking Farm. Stunning figures only recently deciphered from the 1976 census show that Canada, between 1961 and 1976, somehow managed to lose 4,531,643 acres of farmland. Worse, a report soon to be released by Environment Canada will project that, by the turn of the century, urbanization in Canada will eat up land roughly the size of Prince Edward Island—much of it to come from the meagre 13 per cent of the country that is farmable.

• Hard Times. Interest rates have

risen faster than a cabbage sprout; and farm debt has risen to more than $12 billion, equal to the entire federal deficit. With the “golden era” of the 1970s quickly fading, realized net farm income is predicted to fall at least 12 per cent throughout Canada. A 1979 Fortune magazine study on agriculture as a wise financial investment concluded, roughly, that an equally intelligent use of the money would be to stuff it into a mattress. At least then you could sleep on it.

• Foreign Investment. In just one of many examples, 38,000 acres in British Columbia’s Peace River district ended up in West German hands this winter. So attractive has Canadian farmland become to investors from West Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, South Africa and Japan that the National Farmers Union is calling for a royal commission to investigate the matter.

7’m afraid the crisis we ’re in now of oil and energy is a needle in a haystack compared to the crisis there will soon be in farming and farmland. —Ken Durham, Niagara farmer, 1980

A mile up the Seventh Concession road leading north from Bath, a village on the northeastern shore of Lake Ontario, Peter MacKinnon rubs his knuckles along some relatively new hardwood flooring. Below it sits another floor, one that was laid when the present farmhouse was built in 1814. There were holes worn completely through that floor in a half-circle around where the woodstove once stood, a permanent record of the women who have kept this farm in the same family since 1783. MacKinnon represents the sixth generation, his partner and son, Michael, the seventh. They worry there will be no eighth, that someday they will no longer be able to resist the temptation to sell, as their neighbors have, and make a better living off the interest than they ever could the land.

“You know,” MacKinnon says as he looks out the bay window to the east, “there used to be a hundred farms between here and Kingston. Fifteen miles. Now there’s not one. We’re the first farm you come to.”

“What’s happened to the others?”

“Nothing for the most part. They just sit there.”

“Why?”

A shrug. “They’re owned by speculators, developers ... industries. Anybody but farmers.”

Canada may have 3.6 million square miles, but less than eight per cent is actually farmed. Every time, say, St. Catharines, Ont., gets a thousand newcomers, 699 acres of land vanish—and more than 80 per cent of that total involves the finest farmland in the country. Nu-West Development Corporation’s determination to build a bedroom community outside Edmonton

will mean the end of more than 1,200 acres of what Conservative MLA Rollie Cook calls “some of the best farmland Alberta has.” Cook is even more concerned over predictions that his province’s population will increase by 50 per cent by 1990 and that many of the one million newcomers will be housed along the Highway 2 corridor be tween Edmonton and Calgary. “It’s scary,” he says.“We’re r going to have a crisis in 20 years.”

A six-month computer project at Environment Canada only weeks ago uncovered precisely where the nearly five million acres were lost between 1961 and 1976. Almost all losses occurred east of the Ontario-Manitoba border (Quebec’s Gaspé, parts of New Brunswick and central Ontario lost big and a disturbing 28,000 acres disappeared in the prime growing area of Niagara). The gained farmland, though impressive in size, was nearly all in the West, mostly in such northern areas as Al-

berta and British Columbia’s Peace River district, where 2.8 million acres of farmland were added. “You’re replacing 100 acres of Class 1, 2 and 3 cropland with 100 acres in the Peace River that has a major frost problem,” says Manning. “It’s beautiful soil. It’s Class 1 dirt. But once you put the climate on it, it loses its capability. We’re losing the farmland that feeds us, unless you like bread and turnips.”

The true nature of the farmland de-

1968

1978

Land and

Buildings .....$44,982 $195,000

Machinery and

Equipment ... 12,059 61,000

Livestock..... 18,022 45,000

Feed, Crops

and Supplies ... 7,290 28,000

Total

82

353

329

000

cline, in both quantity and quality, will not be known until the 1981 census is taken, but many scientists—and most farmers—are concerned. The Ontario Economic Council argues that continued loss isn’t serious, since farm productivity in that province has risen by 30 per cent in the past year. Some farmers, however* are worried about

working the land to exhaustion. Says one of them, John Sikma, president of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: “If the land is being cropped extensively, then we are mining the land.”

A federal land-use policy, first promised by the Trudeau government in the 1974 throne speech, apparently has been ready now for three years. Twice it has been on the cabinet agenda for adoption but it was stymied,first by the 1979 fall of the Liberals, then by the fall of Joe Clark’s Conservative government. Such a policy would affect nearly half the land in Canada;and most of Canada’s

best farmland, unfortunately, falls in the fuzzed area between provincial and municipal jurisdiction. Often this leads to long and expensive fights over land use, such as the current battle over the fate of 3,000 precious acres in the Niagara district or the controversy concerning 626 acres of farmland at Langley, in B.C.’s fertile Fraser Valley. Land in the Niagara may have the potential to grow even finer peach crops than in Georgia, “the peach state,” but it is also preferred land for developers, for they are attracted to the same qualities in land that farmers look to: flatness, ease in draining and freedom from rocks and trees. “We’re not against development,” says Chatham-area agricultural representative Barry Fraser. “We’d just like to encourage it elsewhere.”

The problem is not all due to paving over. Sociologists talk about the effect of the “urban shadow” and what it does to farmers on marginal land within 100 miles of any major centre. Commuters, hobby farmers, foreign investors and speculators drive up land prices, tempting older farmers to cash in and frightening off younger farmers who can’t financially compete for the land. And with the new rural residents often come bizarre bylaw pressures, such as restrictions on noisy animals, specific hours for manure spreading and no studded tires (hence no tractors) on area roads. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has even called for a bill of rights for farmers, saying that urban harassment has “risen to the point of alarm.”

Land prices rose an average of 417 per cent between 1961 and 1976, ranging from an increase of more than 2,500 per cent around Toronto to actually falling in parts of Newfoundland. Some areas of Manitoba have seen land double in price over the past five years and in Alberta it is now possible to pay more than $1,000 for a single acre of farmland. In Huron County in Southwestern Ontario, where farmland is now selling for $2,000 an acre, farmer Gordon Hill says,“There’s no crop that can be grown here that will pay for $2,000-an-acre land.”

Just two provinces have moved effectively to protect their farmland by law. In 1973 British Columbia set aside 11.7 million acres as farm preserve. And Quebec’s Bill 90 was passed in December, 1978, establishing a 4.5-millionacre protected area along the main river valleys. So effective was this in shaking off speculators that one village, Saint Hubert, discovered last year that unpaid property taxes amounted to $500,000. Speculators had abandoned the land as a doomed investment.

The actions of the other provinces have not been as sensible, however, and the consequences are only now becoming known. “Our forefathers settled the best sites for good farmland,” farmer John Sikma points out. “New ones aren’t going to show up.”

I'm buying more land, and proving up on the homestead.

Seems to me I'm on the safe side.

— Abe in Frederick Philip Grove’s Fruits of the Earth, 1933

Two miles south of Rapid City, Mani-

toba, Jim Lavich and Cindy Murray check through their finances. One sheet of paper projects their farm budget, but the statistics reveal far less than the scribbled notations in the margin: TURN HEAT DOWN, GET RIDE TO WORK, EAT LESS.

Two years ago, depressed over paying $9,000 a year to rent land, they decided to move toward Grove’s “safe side” by sinking $111,000 into their own 480 acres. Last year their farm grossed $30,000—leaving them $11,000 in the hole after mortgage payments. They are young, both 24, but hardly foolish: both hold town jobs to help meet expenses, Lavich immediately sold the barbecue he won in a contest last fall and they’re currently selling off their half-ton. Ironically, they daily look at the obvious solution to turning their fortunes around—clearing off more of their land for extra planting. Trouble is, the costs of clearing land and planting are frightening. Lavich and Murray are caught in the young farmer’s Catch-22: they can’t afford to spend more to make more.

“For us as farmers this will be our make-or-break year,” says Murray. “If it weren’t for the fact that we can borrow equipment from our fathers we’d be out now.” Adds her husband, Lavich: “If we get forced out in the next year it will be impossible to begin again. If we owned the land it would be fine. It’s the interest rates that kill you.”

Leonard Patrie, a young farmer from Mundare, Alberta, bought a quartersection (160 acres) of land in 1973 for $11,000. For a cash cropper that’s not enough land, and he desperately needs to expand, would like, in fact, to pick up the half-section his neighbor has posted for sale. The asking price, however, is $290,000; and since he doesn’t live in either Quebec or Manitoba—the two provinces currently helping farmers by offering reduced interest rates—the carrying charges, at 17 per cent, would amount to $49,300 a year (a 13 per cent loan from the federal Farm Credit Corporation would help, but the loan limit is still only $200,000). “If you don’t have cash,” says Patrie, “you wouldn’t dare touch it.”

The Lands Directorate of Environment Canada says land prices have risen more than four times the equivalent rise in the Consumer Price Index. But expansion becomes a necessary, if cruel, spiral for most farmers. With operating costs, already high, expected to climb another 15 per cent this year, spreading the cost per acre becomes as necessary as rain. Even more important, however, is that land (or at least equity in the land, as most young farmers today doubt they’ll ever be free of mortgages) becomes the farmer’s pension plan. Ed Curylo, who owns a successful $3-million dairy farm near Chilliwack, B.C., says: “If I stopped

expanding I’d have nothing left for retirement.”

Curylo, who at 39 has beaten the system, continues to pursue new land, and the natural consequence is that land prices rise. That the average age of Canadian farmers is over 50 clearly indicates the difficulty young farmers have in competing for the better farmland. “He’s being squeezed out,” Gordon Hill says of the young farmer. “He can’t afford to plant a crop this year. We can’t afford to lose him. Someday we’ll need him.”

Our land is more valuable than your money. It will last forever.

—Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfoot, 1877

Perry Cowan vividly remembers the day the two West Germans came to her dairy farm in New Norway, Alta. While the local real estate agent tried to make her appreciate the quick profits to be made by selling, the two foreigners took a shovel out into the fields and began examining the soil as if they were in the produce section of a supermarket. Cowan and her husband, David, refused even to discuss a price, but their action has not been the Canadian standard. Even Crowfoot himself eventually caved in by letting the CPR onto Blackfoot land for the astronomical price of a railway pass.

All over the country there are disturbing examples. A realtor in Kitchener, Ont., says she has a West German client with upwards of $100 million to invest. The Winnipeg Free Press claims that foreigners now own five per cent of Manitoba farmland. In Ontario the provincial agriculture minister releases a study showing foreign ownership to be “insignificant,” and then an enterprising reporter on the Kingston Whig-Standard discovers the provincial figures are out an embarrassing 110 per cent in Prince Edward County alone. Just down Highway 2 from Kingston, Peter MacKinnon leases 410 acres from Canada Cement Lafarge, which is 54-per-cent owned by a firm in Paris.

The federal government tried in the past to give the Foreign Investment Review Agency a say in any foreign sale of farms worth more than $250,000, but the provinces refused to co-operate. (“We have very little authority,” laments Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan.) Provincial attempts to control foreign land-grabbing have been dismal at best. Prince Edward Island’s much heralded 1972 law which requires cabinet approval for any out-of-province buyer (P.E.I.’s definition of “foreigner”) of more than 10 acres has not been successful. Not only has the cabinet approved more than 80 per cent of such purchases but there is great suspicion that many other purchases are “fronted” by Islanders and thus never examined. In British Columbia, the 1974 Land Registry Act requires that pur-

chasers of land declare their citizenship, but the forms have never been analyzed and today sit stored in various land registry offices. The National Farmers Union claims 40,000 acres in the Peace River country have gone to foreign interests. Gary Runka, who served as manager, chairman and member of the B.C. Land Commission before resigning, told Maclean's he did so because he was “no longer convinced the Social Credit government was serious about preserving farmland.”

The strong marks and francs and yen find obvious appeals in Canada—comparatively cheap land and a weak Canadian dollar—but there may, as well, be

unspoken appeals. Dean Jake Brown of the University of Saskatchewan’s agriculture college and also chairman of the Saskatchewan Farm Ownership Board believes“they are chiefly concerned with inflation because there have been two hyper-inflationary periods in Germany since the turn of the century. This is a good hedge against inflation.” Says Frank Muirhead, executive director of Manitoba’s Agricultural Lands Protection Board: “You have to remember that the threat of war is always felt more keenly by people in Europe.”

The Japanese and West German and South African eagerness to pay top dollar for land is a delight to older farmers looking to get out but is most disconcerting to younger farmers unable to buy the same land. The farm organizations worry about quite another matter—the danger of Canadian farmers becoming tenants on their own land. “The question is,” says Dave Kirk of the Ottawa-based Canadian Federation of Agriculture, “what is going to happen in the next 20 years?” The more radical National Farmers Union isn’t prepared

to wait; it wants a royal commission called immediately to investigate the matter. “There’s not much sense in shutting the door when the horse is gone,” says President Jim Mayne.

There is growing talk of new laws. After months of being accused by Opposition member Jack Riddell of having “sold the shop,” Ontario has recently announced its intention to “maintain at all times” an up-to-date inventory of land ownership. It is also expected that Manitoba will move soon to change its foreign-ownership laws.

Saskatchewan’s new agriculture minister, Gordon MacMurchy, is beginning to express some dissatisfaction with his province’s regulations, and well he should. The small town of Cupar, for example, has lost some 7,000 acres to nonresident foreign interests over the past five years, the last sale coming just before Christmas when a group from West Germany bought up 960 acres with no apparent intention to farm the land themselves. “We’re faced with a new kind of feudalism,” says Jacie Skelton, a 28-year-old farm laborer from Sinclair, Man., who fears she will never be able to afford her own land. “Only farmers should be able to own farmland. Not foreign corporations or individuals who are only buying for a fast profit.”

“The difference with the family farm,” Ontario farmer Gordon Hill adds succinctly, “is that they tend to treat the farm as a member of the family.”

One of those who suffered the numbing bus ride to come to Ottawa last month was Tom Russell, a 30-year-old hog farmer from Dashwood in Southwestern Ontario. With the $254,000 debt

that has tightened about his throat all winter has come the realization that he simply cannot afford to plant his crop this spring; he need not even grow the straw that will surely break his back. All one bright morning he stood below the Peace Tower, his big fists clenching and unclenching as if he needed to grab someone, anyone, and simply shake until they listened. In the five years that he has owned his farm Russell figures he has built up $75,000 in assets. The interest rates and the collapse of the hog market will mean, he says, that “I’ll lose every last nickel.”

But he also says he won’t give up quietly, as so many others are. “The day they come to kick me off,” he says softly, evenly, “they’ll have to drag me out and down the road. I’m tired of being pushed around.”

With files from Ann MacGregor in Toronto, Peter Carlyle-Gordge in Winnipeg, Dale Eisler in Regina, Suzanne Zwarun in Calgary and Mark Budgen in Vancouver.