On September 10, the Toronto Globe and Mail carried an admiring story about Robert Andjelic. He lives near Calgary, but in recent years has assembled 225,000 acres of farmland in Saskatchewan. A Globe reporter accompanied Andjelic in his monster pickup on a 1,500-kilometre road trip to survey his properties. The journalist was obviously impressed. He pegged Andjelic’s Saskatchewan holdings, spread throughout the province’s grain belt, at between $500 and $700 million. Andjelic, he wrote is the largest landowner in Saskatchewan and in Canada. “And in North America, only one man boasts a larger portfolio: Bill Gates.”
The article said that Andjelic was once the largest industrial landowner in Winnipeg, but he sold prior to the financial meltdown in 2008 and began to assemble farmland. He believes that climate change, drought, mass migration and geopolitical events like the war Russia has launched against Ukraine, will drive hunger and the demand for food. The value of good farmland will only increase which represents a sure-fire investment for his children and grandchildren.
The Globe’s story on Andjelic bore the headline Canada’s farm czar. Underlying much of the article, there is at least a mild contempt toward the existing farm community. The journalist wrote that Andjelic hires people to work the land, and others to manage the holdings. He deliberately chooses managers who do not have farm backgrounds: “I don’t have to hear them say this is how things have been done for forty years,” Andjelic said.
Most people quoted in the article sang his praises. One is a lessee, and two others are realtors who have brokered deals for him, hardly objective observers in either case. One was particularly impressed by how Andjelic has cleared the land of old farm structures and of trees.
What about community?
The Globe story on Andjelic consisted of two full pages, a total of about four thousand words. I noticed that he never mentioned the word community. Perhaps, like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he believes that there in no such thing; only individuals exist, in competition with one another.
There was mention in the Globe’s article (by one of the realtors) about a “backlash” from neighbouring farmers, although the journalist did not talk to any of them. The only substantial criticism in the piece came from Annette Desmarais, a professor at the University of Manitoba. She said that big, deep-pocket investors are driving up land prices and shutting young farmers out of the market. She did not say so, but the situation is analogous to having absentee investors push housing prices beyond the reach of potential young buyers.
In an upcoming research report that she has co-authored, Demarais said 78 per cent of farm respondents believe big investors in farmland had a negative effect upon their communities. The Globe reporter’s rejoinder was dismissive: “[The] responses also seem to be a reaction to the transformation under way in farming,” he wrote. “The sector is becoming a more sophisticated, data-driven, bottom-line-oriented business…”
The reporter quoted Andjelic as saying: “I’ve been in this business only about 11 years, but I have turned it on its head.”
I am left to wonder if Andjelic, the reporter, or the realtors have ever looked for any wisdom or best practices among hundreds of thousands of people who have farmed, or do farm, in Saskatchewan. Or are, and were, all of these people simply inept?
When I grew up in rural Saskatchewan, our small towns had schools, stores, dance halls, sports teams, and churches. Much of that has been lost as farm size has grown relentlessly, forcing people to leave.
The average farm size in Saskatchewan is about 1,800 acres, so Andjelic owns as much land as 125 average-sized farmers. He and his relator friends claim that he is more efficient. Efficient for whom? His model represents depopulation on steroids.
Do we really want latifundia and a modern-day serfdom where absentee landowners hire locals to work their estates? My grandparents and many others left Europe to escape just such a system.