Was it the fact that PEI is an island? Was it the challenging history of absentee landlords? Was it the instincts of a farmer from Lewes, Angus MacLean, who was watching rural PEI quickly change in the aftermath of the Development Plan? Was it the endless appetite to own land of the Irving family and the wealth to do it? Was it just common sense? Whatever the reason two recent studies have shown that PEI’s Lands Protection Act is now more important than ever.
The headlines were stark: “Bigger, concentrated farms will drive half of Canadian farm families off the land” said one. “1% of farms operate 70% of world’s farmland” said another. This second global study came from the International Land Coalition and was released two months ago. The authors acknowledge that they use the word “operate” rather than own because they include what’s called contract farming: farmers who have signed long term contracts to grow particular crops at specific prices. The researchers say this inevitably leads to more destructive monocultures, and the loss of the ability to properly care for the land. Farmers don’t easily give up their independence like this and it’s almost always the result of financial pressures and high debt loads.
Part of what’s new in this research is the role that investment funds play in contract farming, large pools of money controlled by people more interested in numbers on spreadsheets than the health of soils. Ward Anseeuw, one of the researchers, told the UK Guardian “The concentration of ownership and control results in a greater push for monocultures and more intensive agriculture as investment funds tend to work on 10-year cycles to generate returns.” The story goes on “Over the past four decades, the biggest shift from small to big was in the United States and Europe, where ownership is in fewer hands and even individual farmers work under strict contracts for retailers, trading conglomerates and investment funds.”
The Canadian research was focused on Western Canada and conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the National Farmers Union, and two academics. The research shows that a larger and larger percentage of farmland there is owned by a shrinking number of farms. In Alberta 6% of farms work 40% of arable land, Saskatchewan 38% is controlled by 8% of farms, and in Manitoba 4% of farms operate 24% of the land. ( View the full report: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/concentration-matters )
Some will say this is just more complaining by the “bigger is always bad” crowd, but I think it’s tangible evidence of a vicious cycle that threatens rural communities and sustainable land use. Larger more efficient farms can produce commodities for less, forcing smaller operations to chase that price, usually unsuccessfully. Debt levels rise, and smaller farmers are left with bad choices: sellout to the bigger guy, or take on a contract that will give the bank more security and hang on a little longer.
What’s challenging is that this is just the way our economy is supposed to work: low cost producers, wherever they are, succeed, and consumers benefit from lower prices. Those that can’t keep up have to move on to something else. What gets lost in all of this is the impact on rural communities as farm families disappear along with their deep knowledge and commitment to pass on farmland in good shape to the next generation.
It’s not perfect but PEI’s Lands Protection Act is a small hedge against this. It doesn’t guarantee fair prices, or any farmer’s success, and as we’ve seen over the last decade, a handful of deep pockets can make it difficult for new farmers to start, or existing farmers to expand.
It at least sets some limits and government control over who can buy land, and how much. More importantly, it keeps politicians' feet to the fire that laissez faire market economics, and the eventual race to the bottom, can be challenged. In fact it must be challenged.
We also can’t ignore the dozens of PEI farmers, potato and blueberry growers for example, who have contracts with big processors. Cavendish Farms buys from 70 or so producers and has a lot of control over when their crop gets delivered, at what price, where farmers buy fertilizer, fuel and other inputs. It’s not ownership but it’s more oversight than most farmers would want. It’s also the best choice many farmers have to sell their crop, and keep their lenders happy.
With an inquiry on, Islanders will hear a lot about the Lands Protection Act this year. What these alarming new studies tell us is that left on its own, certainly in the developed world, ownership and control of farmland is slipping away to those with the deepest pockets. If we want to preserve rural communities, healthy soils, opportunities for new farmers on PEI, then the Lands Protection Act is a necessary cornerstone. PEI has been out of step with other jurisdictions before. This is no time to stop.