Death of Alberta farms premature
By: By Doug Firby
| Posted: Wednesday, Oct 23, 2013 09:18 am
For a large part of the last century, Canada was primarily an agrarian country. Our very identify was shaped by images of farmers harvesting the yield of vast wheat fields in the prairies, milking cows in Ontario and Quebec, digging up potatoes in P.E.I. and picking peaches in B.C.
But in the past few decades, we have evolved into an urban - and now, suburban - country, where the scythe and pitchfork have been replaced by the vinyl-sided two-car garage and an SUV as symbols of who we are. The only constant seems to be the ubiquitous Tim Horton’s coffee cup.
Farmland, it seemed, was in a death spiral as farm families' offspring headed for the soft life in the cities.
But recent trends suggest it would be highly premature to declare the death of farms. In fact, a report earlier this month from the Re/Max real estate firm provides compelling evidence that farmland across the country is staging a comeback.
The measurement is the value of the land. Re/Max surveyed 17 rural communities across the country and found that, with inventory constrained, the price per acre is increasing in 15 of them. In fact, over the past 12 months, there has been “unprecedented” demand for farmland, the Farm Market Trends Report stated.
Commodity values have fallen recently, but prices are still on the rise, said Gurinder Sandhu, executive vice-president of Re/Max Ontario-Atlantic Canada. “Demand… is expected to remain healthy for the foreseeable future, given the positive long-term outlook for global agricultural markets.”
The biggest increases in land prices were noted in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In Ontario, growth was noted in London/Middlesex West, Windsor/Essex Country and Kitchener-Waterloo. The only regions that remained stable in pricing were in Atlantic’s Annapolis Valley and B.C.’s Fraser Valley.
So, is it just city-slickers buying up farmland and driving up prices? The report suggests quite the opposite is true.
“The primary drivers in the market continue to be end-users - established farm operators expanding existing operations,” said Elton Ash, also of Re/Max.
This is heartening for anyone - like me - who grew up on a family farm, and would like to see our farming capacity sustained, even if it’s no longer the idyllic image we once held of a man and his land. Today, farming is agri-business - massive in scale and sophisticated in technology in a way even one generation ago we could not have imagined.
One of the reasons I'm so excited about this trend is because it at least in part refutes a grim, almost soviet, vision of our country, recently depicted by Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. He declared in March, based on sheer numbers, we’re “the world leader in non-downtown high-rise living. Forget the U.S.-generated image of suburban lawns versus downtown density: We’re a nation of peri-urban apartment dwellers.”
Maybe by the numbers, we are. But in spirit, we are great deal more than that. As any farmer will tell you, many city-dwellers are oblivious to the source of the food that lands on their table. To many, food comes from Sobey's or the SuperStore, not the place those grocers acquire it from. Few seem to give little thought to whether their strawberries come from California or tomatoes from Mexico.
But there is risk - you could easily argue, a national security risk - to not maintaining a robust domestic food supply. Not only are there compelling environmental arguments behind the 100-mile diet philosophy, but there are equally riveting cases to be made for economic reasons as well.
In my dozen years of living in Alberta, I've had the privilege of visiting some of this province's breathtaking ranches on a number of occasions. I’ve been there to witness, and even participate in, traditional branding operations, and get familiar with the gritty, unvarnished life of raising cattle in a hostile environment. There's a part of me that's developed a tremendous admiration for the men and women who carry on this fine tradition, and who fight daily against the forces that would turn some of their acreages into a sea of asphalt roofs.
We need them more than we know.
All Canadians should celebrate the economic resurgence of farmland, and by extension farming, in our country. It is a proud part of our past, but an even more important part of our future.
Doug Firby is Editor-in-Chief and National Affairs columnist for Troy Media.