The Manitoba government’s recent changes to the Agricultural Crown Lands (ACL) Program are a major blow to ranchers operating on leased Crown land throughout this province. It is not surprising that leaseholders are furious at the changes that the government has introduced as they appear to be nothing but a short-sighted cash grab.
The regulatory changes being introduced are likely to lead to a tripling of lease rates per AUM (animal unit month) while lease durations are reduced from 50 years to 15. In a concession to leaseholder outrage the agriculture minister quickly backtracked on his intent to subject all lease renewals to an open market bidding system. Now it appears that existing leaseholders will be granted a first right of refusal, presumably meaning that their leases will not be offered up for auction after all, but the details around this concession are vague.
When changes to the ACL Program were originally mooted the aim was to be improving the productivity and utilization of the leased lands in an effort to grow the cattle herd in Manitoba. There are no incentives contained in these new rules that would lead to improvement of the productivity of the leases. Incentives could have included programs to assist ranchers with the financial cost of building cross-fences, improving water infrastructure or controlling troublesome wildlife like wolves and beavers. Another incentive could have been offering startup operators a lease-free period while they build the infrastructure needed to establish a ranch on previously unoccupied Crown land.
Agriculture Minister Eichler has been talking about his plan to double the province’s cow herd ever since his appointment in 2016. Three years on it’s clear there is no plan — the cow herd continues to shrink and ranchers this year will retain the lowest percentage of the retail beef dollar ever. It’s clear this government and this minister have no understanding of the causes of the farm income crisis that led to the collapse of the provincial cow herd since 2003.
With the current drought/lack of feed crisis, on top of long-term returns barely reaching minimum wage levels, Manitoba’s cow herd continues to be liquidated. The government tripling lease rates on Crown land might be the final straw that forces many more ranchers off the land.