By Elwin Wyand
The National Farmers Union is a strong supporter of the family farm. Our policy statement defines a family farm as "an operation that produces food or other agricultural products and where the vast majority of labour, capital and management are provided by family members."
Land struggles in this province go back many years. In the 1700s, most of the property on the Island was owned by absentee landlords. Attempts were made in succeeding years to force these landlords to pay quit rent. Finally on June 30, 1875 the Land Purchases Act received Royal Assent, making it compulsory that estates larger than 500 acres be sold. By the 1880s, the provincial government had purchased 844,000 acres and resold 624,000 acres to local farmers.
In 1982 the National Farmers Union was instrumental in having the Land Protection Act passed in this province. One of the objectives of this act was to limit the amount of land that individuals and corporations can own. Under the act, individuals could own up to 1,000 acres and corporations could own up to 3,000 acres. A few years ago, the regulations under the act were amended to exclude non-arable land from the total aggregate. Non-arable land includes woods, swamp land, wetlands, etc.
In December, 2009 Justice Ralph Thompson in his report on the land stated that the current limits on land holdings should be maintained. Just three years later, we find the P.E.I. government responding to a few requests to open the act in order to increase the land holding limits. Several years ago, one of the large potato processors in this province chose not to renew contracts with some smaller potato producers. Instead they appear to want only a few very large potato operations with which to negotiate contracts.
The National Farmers Union is strongly opposed to any move to amend the Lands Protection Act by increasing the land holding limits in this province. With new technology and ever-increasingly larger machinery, there is a trend to the concentration of land ownership into larger production units. This will lead to increased debt load on many of these farmers, not to mention the breakdown of our rural communities and the erosion of the quality of life in rural P.E.I.
Regarding the so-called ‘red tape' requirement to report on land leasing, purchases, etc., how else can the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission keep track of what is going on in this area? Farmers are constantly being faced with more and more regulations, many of which are not nearly as important as the requirement to report on land holdings. If land is important to farmers, surely we will find time to make yearly reports.
Regarding the statement that farmers with larger land bases will be more competitive, the question is - whom are they competing against? None other than fellow farmers.
Government is constantly promoting ‘buy local' and organic farming which is usually done by smaller growers. How can smaller producers and young farmers ever get into the industry if the limits are increased? Who can afford to buy these large production units when the current owners retire? Only other large corporations.
In 1983, we had 973 dairy farmers in this province. Today we have 192 but two large producers are leaving the industry. Two of the largest hog producers in this country have gone bankrupt this year. Therefore, large is not necessarily better.
Some potato producers have defended their request for increased limits on holdings by insisting that they need to be able to sell their land to create their retirement fund. Other large producers, they say, should be free to buy more land than is currently allowed (this is thinking more about retirement planning than what is best for our province).
Increasing land limits will drive up the cost of production as the competition for farmland will increase. Speaking of the cost of production, this is what is needed by farmers today - not more land, bigger machinery and increased debt. Cost of production includes a reasonable return on labour and investment as well as receiving operating expenses.
Several years ago, the minister of finance mentioned the possibility of having land bought up by off-Island interests and being leased back to the farmers. Surely we do not want to see a return to the days of absentee landlords in this province.
Increasing the land limits will open the door for large industrial corporations to gobble up more and more land. These corporations already have lots of land as they have formed several companies with family members. Some farmers are already farming land off Island.
It is common knowledge that there is a major land grab movement all over the world, including in other parts of Canada. Massive investment funds are dedicated to buying up farmland for future use when it is predicted that food prices will go through the roof. One aspect of this land rush is that investors prefer the convenience of having the land already consolidated in large parcels. It will be difficult enough for P.E.I. to fend off the threat of the land grab attack. If the Lands Protection Act is weakened by tinkering with the limits, the province is increasing the vulnerability of the land in the face of greedy investors who honour no borders.
Elwin Wyand is district director, National Farmers Union, District 1, Region 1, Cavendish, P.E.I.