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Livestock industry sweating the details on Crown land changes

Manitoba Beef Producers says Crown land changes are a step in the right direction, but the group still has a wish list before the first bids come in this fall

Livestock and forage growers already know the next round of Crown land allocation will look different, but how different is yet to be confirmed.

The province took its tender-based Crown lands program to the industry this spring, with the promise that feedback would be considered before the program got its first stress test when 2019 allocations come up this fall.

Last fall was the final year for Manitoba’s points-based allocation system, replaced by a tender program in January 2018. The province said the new program would increase transparency, help grow Manitoba’s beef herd and meet Manitoba’s obligations to the then newly joined New West Partnership Trade Agreement, which requires that producers from other western provinces must be able to access agricultural Crown lands in Manitoba.

Manitoba Beef Producers (MBP) generally welcomed the change, noting that lack of transparency has been a repeated issue with Crown land allocation, while the new system puts all names and tenders up for open view.

Even better, MBP now says, would be if Crown lands were allocated by auction, something it says would introduce price discovery.

“We didn’t want this to be sealed tenders where there wasn’t any feedback to the industry or to the market,” MBP general manager Brian Lemon said. “We liked that it’s going to be market driven, or that the pricing of these lands will be based on market signals. That was a positive. We had some concerns around suggestions that there might be minimum bids. That seemed as a way to further mask some of the market signals that might otherwise be there.”

Beef producers also want a second look at pricing long-term leases and valuing regional differences in land productivity.

The auction system was among suggestions noted in a June report, which summed up consultations between the province and stakeholders like MBP, bison producers, the Manitoba Forage and Grasslands Association and Manitoba’s conservation districts.

The province also suggested that an auction might help address affordability, since producers would bid only what they felt land was worth.

More turnover?

Lease terms are also up for discussion as the province tries to balance stability for existing clients who rely on consistent access for farm planning, with the desire to keep land cycling for new users.

“From the perspective of potential clients, there is a strong desire to bring leases back into the allocation process on a regular basis (five to 10 years),” the report says. “It is felt that ACL (agricultural crown lands) in the current system is likened to private land, and that ACL as a public asset should become more available to new farmers and ranchers on a regular basis.”

“What we don’t want is land sitting idle, which is against the rules, but we also have producers currently who sublease it to others, so we want to modernize that so that doesn’t go on anymore,” Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler said, noting that there have been similar problems where a producer might try to sell a farm with Crown leases attached.

Enforcement was included in the list of issues brought up with industry.

Manitoba’s beef producers, however, are leery of short leases, due to concerns around recouping investment.

Lemon argues that those investments should cover improvements to pasture and soil quality as well as fences and that the system should encourage producers to make those improvements.

Critics question affordability

Critics, however, say they are concerned by the removal of the points system and the implication for small producers, who they say lack the resources to bid against established farmers.

Lynne Fernandez, Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote that the changes would put community pastures at risk in a recent Co-operator op ed.

Fernandez said opening the system to producers from other provinces, “opens up the possibility that cattle will be shipped in from other provinces, then shipped home for processing, leaving no economic value added for Manitoba.” She said the desire to “modernize” the program will result in more intensive cattle production that is controlled by big business.

Neither the province nor MBP expects a sudden wave of out-of-province interest.

“The people in Manitoba, of course, will get first dibs, but I can tell you that we had some of our community pastures not be able to attract enough cattle because there’s not enough around. That’s why it’s important to grow the beef herd,” Eichler said, noting that the open border goes two ways.

Community pastures saw some interest from out-of-province producers in 2016, Eichler added, although transportation cost ended up being largely prohibitive.

Young producers would feature in the province’s consultations, Manitoba Agriculture said in January.

The more recent report, however, claimed new producer incentives as “outside the scope of this consultation process,” although they were earmarked for possible development.

Eichler, meanwhile, pointed to existing incentives, such as programs with more favourable interest terms through MASC.

Lemon also noted a shift in the Crown land program from its previous form, which gave special nod to small producers, to more focus on the most effective use of land and ensuring that agricultural Crown lands are used for agriculture.

“If you look back to the old program, the 4,800 animal units was a clear policy that was meant to favour the smaller producer,” Lemon said.

The program currently limits producers to 4,800 animal month units (the amount of forage to feed a 454-kilogram cow, with or without calf, for a month) in combined private and Crown lands, although adding out-of-province producers may change that to exclude private land.

“We’re trying to grow our herd and that’s going to require that the big guys get bigger and that we encourage new entrants into the program,” Lemon said. “It’s further complicated by certain regions of this province where the opportunity to actually have deeded land is very limited, where the cattle are raised in parts of the province where the majority of the land is all Crown land as you get farther north.”

Eichler says the government is still working on draft regulations and hopes to have legislative changes brought forward in October.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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