Bigger farms, bigger farmers, but who owns the land?

There have been big farms since people started farming. But they aren’t 
immune to market forces. Ownership rules can have an impact too


The recent demise of big farms like One Earth and Broadacre has been much in the news lately. This column predicted just that when the trend started several years ago. Big corporate farms with decisions made in the corner office of the 51st floor in Toronto or Calgary are destined for failure. The three-piece suit crowd look at rich farmers and say “We must get in on the action.”

Indeed, farming is a business. But, a business unlike any other. It must deal with the vagaries of the market place — which is common to all businesses, witness the oil patch over this past winter.

What makes farming unique is the need to adjust on a daily or even hourly basis to what Mother Nature hands us to deal with. And there are no predictions or forecasts that help much. By the time the decision is made in the high tower office, the rules of the game have all changed.

So much for big “high office corporate” farms.

Big farmers

So, what about big farmers? There are many big farmers that do quite well thank you. I was on such a farm north of Saskatoon a few years ago when the harvest from Hell was underway. Huge swaths of tough canola were being rammed through seven combines and packed away in bags at 16 per cent moisture. And two more combines were on the river flats taking off some oats.

What made it all happen was the few ounces of brains under the hat of the farmer who was bouncing around in a little yellow pick up truck and making every decision on the fly. And, the whole operation was to high standards. An employee was handling the grain bagging — the bags were as straight as a die, with no big lumps.

I recall media reports of another big farmer in east central Saskatchewan. As I remember he said the “sweet spot” was about 7,000 acres but he had gone way beyond that.

Why do big farmers get big? Money is part of it but that is not the real driving factor. They do it “because they can.” That is to say they have the smarts, they have the drive and they cannot pass up the challenge of making it all happen. From what I see and hear, they can’t not do it. I have great respect for folks that can handle that kind of operation and all the risk and stress that goes with it.

Big farmers can go broke also. They are playing with big numbers and a few bad breaks can put them down. But many rise from the ashes and start over.

Where I was raised at Milden the big farmers that everybody talked about were the Wilsons — north of the correction line up Harris way.

In coffee and other refreshment establishments we would argue about whether it was 24 quarters or 24 sections. It was my good fortune to move to a Saskatoon address in the 1990s that was very near the matriarch of the 24 Wilsons, by then a widow. She was a feisty type and lived to the grand old age of 98. We had many great visits. She knew every land location and soil type. In 1935 they planted 10,000 acres of wheat. Never harvested much but they did plant it. They went under but rose again to run another farm.

Who owns the land anyway?

In Saskatchewan, our government is just launching a review of provincial land ownership rules. The big deal by the Canada Pension Plan was what rocked the boat. How they think they are going to make money buying at the peak of the market is beyond me. The winners were the folks smart enough to sell at the right time.

But, is that what we want? Our good Saskatchewan farmland treated as a commodity like a stock on the TSX. This old scribe thinks not.

To be sure, at one time the rules were a bit over the top. In the 1980s good family friends of mine ended up in a situation where the only surviving son inherited some of the land but was a resident of Manitoba. He had to sell the land.

But, I think the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

In 1820 my great great grandfather and seven brothers left a stony hill in county Sligo, Ireland to take up land in New Brunswick. My grandfather and his uncle left New Brunswick in the 1880s for better land at Stockton, Manitoba. Grandpa got the sand and the uncle got the good land. So, in 1906 Grandpa pulled up stakes and took up another homestead on the Regina heavy clay at Milden, Sask. Alf Bryan described such soils as “soft sweet clay that the discers cut into like butter.” Good land to be sure.

They all made those moves to get to a place where they could own the land. Share cropping was not an option.

I have never carried a card of any political party and do not go to rallies. But in 1982 I went to a rally by the Sask. PC party with Grant Devine at the podium. We had been colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan, and I wanted to see what it was all about. Busloads of farmers from the clay belt where I was raised were in attendance. The former government had set up a Land Bank and the government held the title to some land — never much land mind you.

One of the big lines I remember was “My grandfather and yours did not come here to be sharecroppers.” Some of the old guys were in tears. Devine was elected in a landslide. Now, to put it mildly, it did not go all that well in the end, but such is politics.

This past winter while searching out books at U. of S. library I stumbled on a whole shelf of thick books entitled The Agrarian History of England and Wales. I selected Vol. VII, 1850 to1914. The book ran to 944 pages and included a table: “The Great Landowners of England and Wales in 1883.”

Entries included: Duke of Northumberland 186,397 acres, Duke of Devonshire 138,536 acres. The list ran all down the page of dukes, lords and earls to the lowly Duke of Newcastle with a paltry 35,547 acres.

Most of our ancestors came to Saskatchewan to get away from all that and to own some good Saskatchewan farmland.

So, I wish our government good luck in their task of reviewing the rules. With all the hype about food security it seems we should have the land in the hands of our citizens.

I do think that the smart money has already met their objective and is on the sidelines waiting for the fall. This old fossil might well be dead wrong — but I think we have a grand bubble on our hands with overpriced land. We do live in interesting times.

Good farming to all in 2015.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

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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