Friday, November 6, 2015

Sask Gov't distorts its own research to give away the farm

A few days ago, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Agriculture, Lyle Stewart announced that his government will begin selling off thousands of acres of Crown farm land at a 15% discount.

There are many reasons Saskatchewan people should be alarmed by this latest decision to sell provincially-owned lands at below market prices, while threatening current lessees with higher lease rate in future years if they don’t buy the land. Here are a few:

1. Minister Stewart has said repeatedly that this land is of low ecological value and therefore can be sold. His messaging implies that government science staff have given their blessing by declaring that the land has little ecological value.

Well, here is what actually happened: yes, biologists and ecologists from various provincial government agencies were told to devise a scoring system to determine the relative ecological value of Crown land south of the forest. That is a scientific process in itself and has some objectivity, though one could perhaps argue over the weighting process they developed. But—and this is an important but—the decision of where to draw the line and say 'below this mark everything can be sold' was not scientific or objective. It was entirely political and arbitrary, and it is simply wrong for the Saskatchewan Party to draw that line behind closed doors without a fully transparent public process. 

this whooping crane landed on farm land just south of Regina that
is cultivated and therefore would not score high in any ranking of ecological value

Minister Stewart will argue that they consulted with conservation NGOs to have them approve the ranking system, but again, these groups, like the government scientists, were not involved in determining what score in the system would trigger the decision to sell land. The ecological value ranking system, as applied by Saskatchewan Agriculture, is much like marking students on a curve. A certain percentage is required to fail.

2. By selling off Saskatchewan’s Crown farmland at bargain prices, the Provincial Government is literally “giving away the farm”—taking reliable assets taxpayers have invested in and benefited from for decades and trading them for a one-time gain. If we "sell the goose" we give up future revenue that would support good environmental programming, agricultural support and other public goods.

3. In the media coverage, Minister Stewart uses their public review of farmland ownership rules to justify the sale of Crown land. "During our recent review of farmland ownership rules, a large majority of producers told us they opposed large institutions owning farmland,” said Stewart. “The provincial government is probably the largest institutional owner of farmland." 

Hold on a moment--the government is not just another institution. The government is us, represents us and our interests. Stewart is claiming that the survey indicated that most producers do not want the government to own farm land. This is a baldfaced distortion of the survey and its results. The survey was not about land owned by the Crown. It did not ask respondents if they are for or against government ownership of land (see the results for yourself here). Its questions focused on pension plans and investment funds and of course most farmers surveyed were opposed to that kind of institutional land ownership. And in fact, the survey does show that more than 75% of respondents believe it is important for lease land to remain affordable, flying in the face of the Minister's plan to jack up lease rates for those who choose not to purchase. 

For Minister Stewart to slide Crown land and government ownership under the heading of institutional investment in his speaking points is simply a load of spin to justify a plan to bring short-term revenue into a budget hampered by falling resource prices.

4. With climate change looming, all governments will need ways to use land to maximize carbon sequestration and ensure that we have enough natural cover on the landscape to withstand extreme weather events. If we privatize more Crown land—whether it has native grassland and high ecological value or not—we lose more capacity to manage for climate change.

5. Affordable lease land plays a role in helping young producers get started. Even at a 15% discount, if you are a rancher who is suddenly being told you have to purchase thousands of acres or else face a big jump in your lease rates, you either take on a big debt load to purchase or you swallow the higher lease rates and just push the land harder to make more income. The sale of Crown land may be good for a few producers who are already doing well financially, but it will hurt many others.

 government is placing our children's prairie heritage at risk while trying to divest itself of responsibility for caring for the soils and land of Saskatchewan. 

It is a strategy that sells well in the board rooms of industry and land developers because it removes government oversight and environmental regulations from a lot of land. 

It might even please the farmers who have the money to buy the land at reduced prices, but it does nothing for the majority of farmers faced with escalating costs amid increasing pressure for them to steward ecological services that the rest of us benefit from.

Finally, the one-time gain from selling our shared heritage puts money in the coffers of the government just before a provincial election planned for April 2016. 

You have to wonder what else this government will sell at fire sale prices so that, come spring, they can say that they balanced the budget.

land with non-native grass may not rank high in ecological value but if managed
well it can provide habitat and help fight climate change


  1. Excellent analysis! Hope Saskatchwan sees through the SP spin.
    Vanessa Thorson

  2. Excellent analysis! Hope Saskatchwan sees through the SP spin.
    Vanessa Thorson

  3. Thanks Vanessa--nice to hear from you.

  4. The sale of this farmland is all about ideology and has nothing to do with common sense. When ideology starts to get in the way of common sense, you have to start thinking about your democratic options.

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