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90 years of Saskatchewan farmland prices

Saskatchewan land prices have been on the move since 1968. What’s next?

Readers have been asking for an update on farmland prices but I was having trouble accessing the required data. Thanks to Terry Bedard of Saskatchewan Agriculture for sending me recent average price data.

This data is just for Saskatchewan. Alberta land prices are changed by many factors that are not related to what is grown on the land and Manitoba does not have any brown or dark brown (drier) soil zones.

Annual average farmland prices from 1926 to 2015 were converted to constant 2016 dollars using the Bank of Canada Inflation Calculator on the Bank of Canada website.

Converting the numbers is a big job requiring a separate calculation for each individual year.

The data is all in the accompanying graph so we will just go through it in chronological order for the past 90 years.

The early days

1920s to 1960s

The first Saskatchewan farmland price peak was in 1928. In 1929 my dad, grandfather and great uncle traded land to deal with a dissecting railroad. In the process they bought a half section of rented land for too much money — $35/acre, or $486 in 2016 dollars. To make the deal they had to mortgage the home quarter with the large two-and-a-half storey house built in 1917 when wheat prices were very high. That deal nearly did them in. Dad described it this way: “That is where we cooked our goose.”

From the 1928 peak to the end of the dirty ’30s land prices dropped until about 1942. Revenues from the sale of the big “mortgage lifter” crop of 1942 went to just that — paying off the debt of earlier years. There was no land price spike, and there was no appetite for big mortgages for many years. My years on Brunswick Farm at Milden were 1940 to 1960. Land prices were stable and not much of an issue — very little land changed hands.

The years of change

1960s to 1981

The year 1960 is the start of changes brought about in no small measure by the adoption of fertilizer use. The 1960s started out good but by 1968 poor wheat markets cooled it down. The low point was 1970 where farmers were paid by the Federal Government to summerfallow land two years in a row. It was the infamous LIFT program (Lower Inventories for Tomorrow).

Although 1970 was the low point, the dip in land prices was in 1973 when a very sharp and big jump in wheat sales and prices had farmers making serious money. That serious money was quickly recapitalized into rapidly increasing land prices.

1981 was the big turnaround brought about by several factors: low grain prices, dry years. But high interest rates were the real kicker. How many are long enough in the tooth to remember 15 to 20 per cent interest rates? Many are too young to remember the full page ads of distress land sales published by FCC and RBC.

In 1981 this dumb old scribe bought a piece of ground at Spiritwood (bush and rocks with 50 acres broke) for a price he could afford, just to own land. It seemed like land was headed completely out of range and was going to keep going up forever. There was no mortgage — just a demand loan at 18 per cent. The saving feature was that I soon paid it off by eating bologna and driving an old car until it was paid from other income.

The big ski slope

1981 to 1993

The depth of the 1980s depression was 1988 — no rain, poor prices for what was grown and high interest rates. But, it took until 1993 for land prices to bottom out. Guess what? This old scribe bought three quarters of land (for cash) near Saskatoon in 1993 and 1994. That was a good move.

Price inflation

1993 to 2008

The sting of the big ski slide kept land prices low until about 2007. Somewhere in there Saskatchewan land ownership rules were relaxed, allowing outside money to contribute to price inflation.

The boom

2008 to 2015

A huge boom in land prices has occurred in the past years: 10-20 per cent increases in a single year at times. This is not sustainable.

I do not have all the facts — perhaps readers do and can enlighten me. In areas of high quality farmland, I think outside money has had an influence on price increases, but outside money is not likely a large percentage of overall sales.

Absentee landlords with only a quick flip in mind do not lead to the best long-term land management. Who is going to invest in a long-term crop rotation or a high phosphorus rate to build up the soil if the land could be sold out from under them at any time?

Many folks say “this time is different — land prices will never go back down.” One thing is different — some of the high price land is being bought by neighbouring farmers who are cutting very big cheques to fill in a hole in a block of land. Many farmers have made huge profits in the past decade

But, this old scribe is convinced that the cycle will repeat itself. With land prices it takes a few years for sale values to catch up with the realities of market, economic and agronomic realities. With any luck I may live long enough to see the next ski slide downwards but will not live to see the rise after that.

About the author

Columnist

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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