Saskatchewan farmland, new serfdom

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.  

Farm czar

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.

Negative effect

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?  

Serfdom

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. 

Photo credit: Free Images

19 thoughts on “Saskatchewan farmland, new serfdom

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  1. Thanks for this piece. I remember the Globe article. It was hard not to ask why the concentration of land ownership is beneficial. As you point out it means the depopulation of many communities. And movement towards greater numbers of agricultural workers replacing farmers. When business people say they are producing more efficiently they usually mean that they are paying less in wages which also means less money in small communities.

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  2. So very interesting. Makes one realize just how vast our country is. I guess if I purchased a hundred acres of wheat-land in Sask. today, maybe 50 generations into the future, my family would be wealthy. That is, of course, if global warming and its deniers haven’t already destroyed our planet! Hopefully, science will prevail and my dust will rejoice!

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  3. I see similarities to the natural world here. Where rich habitat for wildlife once existed, so, too did thriving rural, human communities. Where there was once a rich biodiversity of species, now stand vast fields of mono-crops, drenched with pesticides and devoid of variety. It’s a tragedy. And, until the mainline parties stop worshipping ever-bigger industrial “chemical” farms like this one, nothing will change.

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  4. As a former resident of Saskatchewan, this article fills me with deep sorrow and bitterness. I imagine what my late father and his brothers would be saying now – TRAGIC! I fully realize that things change, but for the worse? This sort of greed is destroying all of us! Shame!

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  5. It’s purely about money with this group. They have it and want more. Tried to deal with these guys, they misrepresented the land, once we had that cleared up and a deal in place, granted acces to the land to get started on the cleanup (misuse of land prior), I was notified after the Easter weekend 5 days later ythat someone else had come in with a higher bid, I think the new bidders saved me a headache in the end though. Paperwork had not been signed. Had to combine a bunch of the acres so it could be seeded. I wouldn’t seed without paperwork being signed, however we were getting ready to go when I was told I wasn’t renting the land anymore. I didn’t loose on combining but didnt win either. Another lesson learned

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  6. I am a farm widow, who has liquidated half of my acres, to local young farmers. We were not large farmers, and my property was not advertised, so I didn’t have to deal with folks like these. I offered my land to the people who had been renting, and working it for several years. It’s sad to see the rural communities disappear, and farms just keep getting bigger. . I wouldn’t want to be a young farmer today. There is so much misinformation and distrust to be faced. I am so grateful to everyone who chooses this difficult, thankless path. I know how hard they work, and the pressures and uncertainty they face. If you eat today, thank a farmer.

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  7. I have heard the Chinese have purchased large number of farms in Sask . They then rent the land back to the farmer . Then we have our Hutterite colonies that are spread out over the prairie provinces . It used to be a AB provincial law that colonies had to be a certain distance apart ,however Peter Lougheed was retained by the Hutterites before he became Premier ,and after he became Premier in 1972 ,the law was changed and colonies can now own land next to each other . Around Lethbridge there are many colonies a dozen or so and some touch . Hutterites also means fewer small farmers and once the land is owned by the Hutterites it will never go back on the market . In between Brooks and Strahmore most of the land is owned by Hutterites .They are successful because they have abundant labour supply and are like a religious cult where the kids are indoctrinated into their lifestyle

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  8. One of the problems is young families and people are moving into the cities because they don’t want to farm like their parents did so this leaves all of the farms and land up to big corporations buying up the land. And because the prices are so high.. people that do want to stay cannot afford to complete with the deep pockets of groups like the Hutterites or this fellow who doesn’t understand what it means to live with the land .. they just want to live on the land!

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  9. So this guy is cutting down trees, I guess to allow just that tiny bit more room for crops, and he thinks this shows he’s smart and the people who had the trees were dumb and needed someone like him to shake things up.
    So, this “smart guy” never heard of the dust bowl, huh? So he thinks in an age of global warming where we can expect more droughts, the “smart” thing is to make farmland more vulnerable to erosion? What a bloody moron.
    I bet most of what he does is like that–“smart” for the next quarter, assuming that since he’s a genius and everyone who knows what they’re doing is a fool there’s no need to ask why anyone was doing anything the way they did it (which was because the way he’s doing it has bad consequences).
    This whole big farm agribusiness thing–it’s bad for rural communities, yes. But it’s also bad for people who want to eat food, especially people who might want to eat nutritious food that doesn’t poison them, and who might want to keep on eating it in the future instead of having to stop after the soil blows away. It’s good for a few people with far too much money, but it’s good for hardly anyone else.

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  10. You have not even interviewed any of Robert current tenants, possibly they are the ones supporting the communities…North America is a free market economy if Robert was doing something so wrong he wouldn’t be so successful and what about Canadian Pension Plan and the 200,000 ac of farmland they own through Canterra Holdings ?
    People like you always only report one side of the story, very mediocre as always.

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    1. Hi. From my quick read of The Saskatchewan Farm Security Act that is true. But the act seems to allow for exceptions. You might try looking into the research papers of Prof. Annette Desmarais. I have a link to her in my blog piece. Likely, she knows what is happening on the ground (literally).

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