A road allowance and the farming gold rush
“Farming in general has more in common with Bay Street than it does to the ma-and-pa caricature commonly imagined,” says Mason Van Luven.
The landscape of the agricultural industry in Saskatchewan is changing, both literally and figuratively.
Our story begins with an unassuming section of grid road near the town of Lipton, in Rural Municipality 217, in the province’s southeast corner. In the early months of 2021, a nearby farming operation called Deer Creek Farms petitioned the RM to close this section of road and the land immediately on either side of it – together known as a road allowance – and lease it to them.
The request to close the road was first introduced during RM 217’s council meeting on June 1, 2021, and the first reading of the new bylaw occurred at the next meeting, on July 6. The RM held a public hearing on August 3, where community members who would be affected by the possible closure of the road could provide input. But even after community members publicly objected, the road was still closed.
“What we’re seeing is a significant increase in inland inequality on the Prairies, and that [is something] we should all be concerned about.”
The closure of a relatively small road allowance in the Lipton area might not seem significant in the grand scheme of things, but to the farmers and ranchers who used the road, it is a microcosm of a much larger issue in Saskatchewan.
Annette Aurélie Desmarais, a former farmer and now sociologist from the University of Manitoba who researches food sovereignty and agrarian change, says large-scale farming has made it much more difficult for smaller farms to compete for land. Small farms are often outbid or can’t even get the loans needed to purchase more land and expand their operations.
“The way the system is currently working is that it’s ensuring that only those who are wealthy are able to gain even more wealth by purchasing more land,” says Desmarais. “What we’re seeing is a significant increase in inland inequality on the Prairies, and that [is something] we should all be concerned about.”
What is a road allowance?
When European settlers came to the Prairies and surveyed the land, they set aside some land for roads to allow farmers to travel easily between land sections. These are referred to as “road allowances.”
All public roads in Saskatchewan – including original road allowances – are Crown land that is owned by the provincial government. However, with the exception of provincial highways, municipalities have “the authority to direct, control and manage all streets and roads within their municipality,” the Government of Saskatchewan website explains. Municipalities also get to decide which roads get built within their municipality, as well as the standards by which they are constructed and maintained.
This particular decision was met with public opposition – and the RM proceeded despite this opposition.
Some farmers with land adjacent to a road allowance will farm or graze livestock right up to the road, typically leaving enough space for vehicles to get through. Both Deer Creek Farms and another smaller farm, Big Rock Cattle Corp., were using parts of the disputed road allowance in this way: Deer Creek used it for growing crops, and Big Rock fenced off an area to graze cattle.
At the public hearing, Ryan Huber of Deer Creek Farms spoke in favour of closing the road, saying that the road allowance was undeveloped and impassable – and that he had cleaned up the overgrown brush. Rural Municipality 217 voted to close the road allowance, with five councillors voting in favour and one opposed. The RM then leased the Crown land to Deer Creek Farms.
Although it is not uncommon for RMs to close road allowances, and then for that Crown land to be sold or leased, this particular decision was met with public opposition – and the RM proceeded despite this opposition.
The reeve – or council chairperson – of RM 217, Corey Senft, declined to comment on the closure of the road allowance.
Greg Van Luven owns and operates Big Rock Cattle Corp., a regenerative cattle ranch in Lipton. His land lies to the south of the closed road, and he says he used the road frequently for cattle transport and rotational grazing. He’s also a councillor of RM 217, but because of this conflict of interest, he wasn’t able to vote on the motion to close the road allowance.
Greg and his son Mason have both been vocal about trying to prevent and reverse the closure of the road allowance.
Greg has two quarter sections of land that he needs to transport cattle to and from, and he relied upon the road for ease of access between the sections. “Seeing as how I bought that quarter, that [road] is my direct access between the two. I [now] have to go a mile out to the highway, two miles down, then come back another mile to get onto the road going to [my] quarter,” he says. “Now if I’m to move cattle in between the two, or haul bales […] I have to drive around all the time.”
“If you’re selling two quarters of land, if they’re joined by a back road, they’re definitely worth more than a scenic trip around the highway.”
Those against the road closure see it as a decision being made in the name of business rather than in the interest of the community.
“I guess we’ll call it the neoliberal mindset or that sort of ‘business-first,’” Mason says. “And no matter what we said or did, we couldn’t change their mind.”
A representative of the Lipton Riding Club was among those who expressed opposition to the road closure, saying that young families in the area used the road to ride horses on because it was a safe site with low traffic.
Greg worries that, if he ever chooses to retire and sell his property, not having direct access to some of his land makes the property less valuable on the real estate market. “If you’re selling two quarters of land, if they’re joined by a back road, they’re definitely worth more than a scenic trip around the highway,” he explains.
More land in fewer hands
Greg went to the Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan to try and overturn the bylaw that closed the road allowance.
This isn’t the first time Greg says he’s had to fight for his regenerative cattle ranch. In May 2021, before the road allowance controversy, the fence that Greg erected on the road allowance near his property was allegedly trampled by a Deer Creek Farms tractor. Greg says about $1,000 of damage was caused, but without evidence of who was driving the tractor, he says the RCMP would not lay charges.
Ryan Huber of Deer Creek Farms and his father, Marvin, both spoke in favour of the road closure at the RM’s public hearing. When I called Marvin for comment, he told me he doesn’t farm anymore and that I should call somewhere else – then hung up. Ryan did not answer calls on two different days.
Saskatchewan saw a 51 per cent decline in the total number of farmers between 1976 and 2016.
According to the land title registry, Deer Creek Farms, Ryan Huber, and Marvin Huber together own at least 2,500 acres of land in Saskatchewan. They are nowhere near the largest owners of farmland in the province. (For reference, the largest farmland owner, Robert Andjelic from Calgary, owns around 225,845 acres according to his LinkedIn.) But experts have noted growing concerns from small-scale farmers about farmland ownership in Saskatchewan.
A 2020 study by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives showed farms in Saskatchewan are getting bigger, while fewer and fewer families own those farms. According to that study, Saskatchewan saw a 51 per cent decline in the total number of farmers between 1976 and 2016.
With a decrease in farmer-owned operations comes an increase in investor ownership. And when more land is bought and owned by fewer farms, Desmarais says it creates “land inequalities on the prairies.” As land inequality increases, it’s likely income inequality will too.
André Magnan is an associate professor at the University of Regina who researches agrifood systems, globalization, and development. He surveyed over 400 farmers who shared their growing concern about farm investors in Saskatchewan.
“Farmers, overwhelmingly, are concerned about these trends toward super-large farms, and toward investor ownership of farmland,” says Magnan. “Some of the common things that they [farmers] do report as being concerning are the farming practices of some of the really large operators.”
For example, a large-scale farmer in Alberta who has the capital could buy land wherever it is available in Saskatchewan and then commute back and forth to the newly purchased second farm.
Experts say the poor practices used by mega-farms – including the frequent use of heavy machinery and pesticides – damage the environment. The underlying motivation for this widespread environmental disregard is the desire to create as much arable land as possible, Magnan says. “Maximize the number of farmable acres, which increases the value of the land as a financial asset and [also] potentially increase[s] the production capacity of that land.”
In the creeks on the Van Luven farm, Greg says, biodiversity is vanishing. “There’s no aquatic life left in the water. You get a couple of snails, [but] even the sticklebacks, they’ve been cleaned out of here for five years now. I haven’t seen a toad in 40 years.” He believes it’s due to planes spraying pesticides and contaminating the water.
The unease of these farmers can be further understood by looking at investments coming from other provinces: for example, a large-scale farmer in Alberta who has the capital could buy land wherever it is available in Saskatchewan and then commute back and forth to the newly purchased second farm. When doing this, though, they don’t stay in or support the community around their farm.
“There’s a lot of money to be made, but that money is going elsewhere,” Mason says. “[It’s] not staying in the local community, apart from the wages that seasonal workers might capture.”
Experts say that in a province that contains 70 per cent of the country’s agricultural land, there needs to be a conversation about equitable distribution and access to Canadian farmland.
“It’s a bit of a gold rush right now,” says Mason. “People are trying to get as much [land] as they possibly can.”