Real estate is a hot topic in Canada. Most Canadians are acutely aware of how home prices and rents have skyrocketed in the last 15 years or so. In large cities, investor ownership of condos and houses has attracted the attention of policymakers and the public at large, prompting the federal government to crack down on foreign buyers

While many are familiar with these urban real estate trends, few are aware of the restructuring of farmland ownership occurring in rural areas. Since 2014, we’ve been studying changing land tenure patterns in the Prairies, where 70 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land is situated. 

Cattle graze under a flock of birds in an Alberta field
Investor ownership of farmland in Saskatchewan was negligible in 2002, but had climbed to nearly one million acres by 2018, highlighting the growing influence of financial players over farming and food production. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Our research reveals three major trends — ongoing farm consolidation, increasing land concentration and expanding investor ownership of farmland — leading to growing land inequality. Like the transformation of urban real estate, who benefits from these changes is highly contested.

Investors increasingly interested in Prairies farmland

Investor purchases of farmland worldwide increased significantly as part of the global landgrab spurred by the food price spikes of 2007 and 2008. High food prices, a growing global demand for food and environmental pressures convinced many global investors that farmland was a safe bet in an increasingly volatile world. 

As hedge funds, pension funds and wealthy individuals poured billions of dollars into farmland, researchers like us began to write about the financialization of agriculture — that is, the growing influence of financial players and financial motives over farming and food production.

Our research found that investor ownership of farmland in Saskatchewan was negligible in 2002, but had climbed to nearly one million acres by 2018 — almost 18 times the size of Saskatoon. (A million acres is about 4,050 square kilometres). While Saskatchewan sought to tighten rules on farmland ownership in 2016, this seems to have done little to slow down the pace of investor acquisitions. 

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The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.
The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.
We’re covering energy on the Prairies

Robert Andjelic, an investor from Alberta, is now Canada’s largest farmland owner with 225,435 acres in 92 Saskatchewan rural municipalities. His company leases farmland to dozens of farmers and undertakes “land improvements,” such as clearing trees, brush and other natural habitat, as well as filling in wetlands in order to farm from corner to corner of every parcel.

Another major investor is Avenue Living, which has a foot in both urban real estate (as the owner of multi-family housing units across North America) and farmland, with a portfolio of some 83,000 acres.

As investors gobble up more land, there is growing unease among farmers. Investors argue they are helping farmers by relieving them of their assets and providing young farmers with access to land through rental agreements. Given that, on average, investors pay more for land compared to other buyers, these deep-pocketed buyers have undoubtedly contributed to the rapid increase of farmland prices.

Close up of barley growing in an Alberta field
Farmers across the Prairies have expressed concern that huge mega-farms lead to increased environmental degradation. Investors often make “land improvements,” such as clearing trees, brush and other natural habitat, as well as filling in wetlands in order to lease every corner of land. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

In our survey of 400 prairie farmers, 76 per cent of farmers under 35 indicated that non-farmer investor activity has had a negative or very negative effect on the local farmland market. 83.2 per cent of older farmers indicated that investor activity has had negative or very negative impact on the local community. 

Farmers also expressed unease about the growing economic clout of large farmers (over 10,000 acres) and mega-farms (over 30,000 acres) in the region.

Mega-farms’ environmental impact a concern in Prairies farming

Investors are not the only entities with vast landholdings. Some of Saskatchewan’s largest grain farms now own and control tens of thousands of acres. According to our research, Monette Farms owned some 63,000 acres of land in 2018, and farms much more than that with production sites in Montana, Arizona and Saskatchewan. 

One Organic Farms reportedly operates on a land base of 40,000 acres, with the large majority of the land rented from Andjelic Land Inc., Saskatchewan’s largest investor-owner.

In-depth interviews with over 100 farmers in AlbertaSaskatchewan and Manitoba revealed many are deeply concerned about the environmental degradation wrought by big agriculture. Others argued these players out-compete locals for farmland and contribute little to local communities.

Prairies farming models have implications for climate goals

Land inequality has significant implications for the vibrancy of democracy, the viability of rural communities and the sustainability of agriculture.

Accessing land is currently the biggest barrier for young and new farmers who want to get into farming and land prices continue to soar above what is justified by its productive value. At the same time, farm debt is the highest it’s ever been and the prairies are experiencing an emptying out of the countryside. 

We should also be concerned about the financialized logic promoted by investors and mega-farmers, which seeks to extract monetary value from every square inch of farmland.

Given that agriculture is a significant contributor to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, doubling-down on this hyper-productive, fossil-fuel dependent model will only make it harder for Canada to meet its climate change commitment.

An orange moon on the horizon over a harvested Alberta field
Agriculture is a significant producer of carbon pollution. Mega-farms and investor-owned farmland may hinder Canada’s ability to meet its climate goals. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

The question is: what kind of agriculture do Canadians want? Growing land inequality undermines the social, economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture. 

Progressive agrarian and food movements propose a different future — one based on food sovereignty. This would entail equitable access to land for farmers, sustainable livelihoods and valuing farmland for its social and ecological worth, as well as its productive value. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, there has never been a better time for urban and rural Canadians to work together to transform food systems.

Updated April 11, 2023, at 12:40 p.m. MT: This article was updated to reflect that Robert Andjelic is the largest farmland owner in Canada, not the largest landowner.

The Conversation

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 50 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?