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Changing landownership driving rural depopulation: NFU

More non-farmer landowners spells trouble for rural Canada, the organization says

Rural Canada is losing population and communities are suffering because of changing farmland ownership patterns and it’s time for governments to correct the situation, says Emery Huszka, president of the National Farmers Union of Ontario.

“Landownership in addition to consolidation now sees pension funds, investment professionals and non-farm investors gobbling up ground as if it were candy at Halloween,” Huszka, a member of the NFU National Council, told the Senate agriculture committee inquiry into farmland ownership trends.

“On the surface, the land is still under cultivation, but further examination reveals the disappearance of families, of residences, imperilled schools, churches, small businesses, all echoing the effect of rural depopulation that land grabbing has served to accelerate.”

Huszka noted the farm group’s Losing Our Grip report sets out steps the federal and provincial governments could take to ensure farmland remains in the hands of farmers.

The two levels of government “must enact a unified set of landownership restrictions wherein farmland can be owned only by individuals who reside in the province in which the land is located or by incorporated farming operations, including co-operatives owned by individuals who reside in the province in which the land is located.”

Provinces should closely track and public report annually on foreign and domestic ownership, he says. “Provinces should also consider legislating appropriate maximum size of land holdings per individual, per incorporated family, or per co-operative farm or corporation, as has been enacted in Prince Edward Island.”

Another positive measure would be a differential tax rate to encourage “ownership by farm families and other local citizens, and discourage investors and large corporations from buying and owning farmland.

“Farmers and other local residents should be charged lower tax rates than investors, foreign interests and non-farm corporations, and large farm corporations with numerous shareholders should be taxed at a higher rate,” he added. Investments in farmland investment companies should not be RRSP eligible.

Governments should provide incentives to encourage “stewardship practices that maintain the land’s productivity for the long term and corresponding penalties for using farm practices designed to extract the maximum rents in the short term at the expense of soil health, biodiversity, water quality and other environmental benefits.”

Easing intergenerational farm transfers and financial help for young farmers are other important measures along with restricting the transfer of farmland to non-agricultural uses. “Industrial or residential development on class one, two and three farmland should be outright prohibited,” Huszka said. “All provinces should enact legislation to protect their farmland using the laws of B.C., P.E.I. and Quebec as starting points to improve and expand farmland protection across Canada.”

He said provincial governments place rural municipalities in a financial squeeze by demanding every higher levels of services that a shrinking base of local taxpayers are charged for. At the same time, governments fail “to deliver on basic needs such as a comprehensive risk management safety net, when unfair trade deals do see food appear on our shelves using processes and products that are not permitted in Canada without the compliance costs which are forced upon our producers, when we fail to protect the fair market price of land, we see farmer after farmer simply give up and take the money, wiping out another succession of future farmers.”

While farming requires access to land, its “unrestricted commoditization as a liquid asset to be disposed of at will is fundamentally flawed,” he continued. “That which serves as the foundation for life itself demands our thoughtful reflection. If indeed we believe in fundamental human rights, including the right to have access to life-giving food, then we must embrace the need for farmers to have access and control over their land.”

Governments and society don’t appreciate the talents a farmer requires. “To be a skilled farmer is to develop multiple skill sets. One must be an agronomist, accountant, marketer, mechanic, human resources manager, purchaser, veterinarian, engineer, et cetera. One must adapt to becoming multi-faceted. As part of a strong farm community, these skills evolve and the knowledge is traditionally shared among farming neighbours.”

If Canada allows farm families “to march into our history books, our country loses one of our core strengths and that is the farming community itself.”

While agriculture has learned to produce more with fewer people, there are “hidden dangers under the mask of what we fantasize as a successful example of advanced agriculture. The unsustainable high cost of technology, the need for all production partners to have an entitled profit, the acceleration of land as a stable asset in an investment portfolio or pension plan or liquid asset to attract desired foreign investment create the perfect storm for a race to the loss of our food sovereignty.”

What the NFU wants is for “our fellow eaters to engage in a larger societal debate that would ultimately identify the need to keep farmers on the land.”

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