By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press
After close to two years, Manitoba farmers received the good news that new long-term leases for Agricultural Crown Lands (ACL) would be available for next year. The good spirits were dampened once the details of the revised program were understood.
There are about 1.45 million acres of forage land that the provincial government rents or leases for grazing or hay production and another 11,000 acres leased for cropping. In 2017, the province began the process of modernizing the forage lease program. There were two rounds of consultations, during which the province accepted feedback from the public, as well as holding meetings with key stakeholders.
The government could be forgiven for thinking that people didn’t really care– the first round of surveys yielded 37 responses and the second, 25. A dismal response when you consider that there are about 1,750 forage leaseholders and close to 6,000 cattle producers in the province. The consultation process wasn’t done in secret; starting in December 2017, it was covered in the general media, industry publications and producer meetings. The initial changes were announced in late 2018 and another round of consultations began in order to work out the details.
In modernizing the rules, the province did walk a line between opposing sides. When it came to term length, for example, existing leaseholders wanted a longer-term, to make any improvements financially viable. Prospective leaseholders wanted shorter terms, to see these public lands made available more frequently than under a 50-year term length. Those whose farms are mostly comprised of Crown land are angry that the new 15 year terms have taken away their continuity of access and cost.
The finalized regulations have been met with opposition from existing leaseholders beyond the term length. Farmers nearing retirement are angry that unit transfers, the ability to transfer ACL leases with the sale of a farm, are no longer allowed and that family transfers can only be for the balance of the lease term.
Everyone is unhappy with the new pricing structure. Under the new program, in addition to paying a one-time fee at public auction for the opportunity to rent the land, rental rates are rising between 300 and 500 percent. The added rub is that in 2020, leaseholders will be responsible for two years’ rent. In early 2020, they’ll pay that year’s rent, which will be the average of the old rate and the new rate, then, in November or December, they’ll receive a bill for their 2021 rental, which will be at the new rate and due within 30 days.
These changes put ACL rental rates close to private rates, but not only is ACL almost always marginal land, leaseholders don’t have the same rights as they do with private land. Crown land leaseholders can only use their land in certain ways; for example, a hay lease can’t be used for grazing, and there are restrictions on what can be grown. Not only that, leaseholders can’t limit access. While non-lease holders are prohibited from taking motorized vehicles on Crown land, the tire tracks across leased fields tell a different story. While the province is asking for more money, they haven’t allocated any additional funding to enforcement, which was a major issue raised in the first round of consultation.
Coming off a tough year, in which ranchers are struggling to feed their herds and many producers are looking for help from the province, the government has turned around and added more costs, without adding any significant benefits. There is some hope, as Manitoba Beef Producers have said that there are still some ongoing consultations.
In 2018, I wrote, “It’s a shame that so few people took the opportunity to make their thoughts and needs heard, to develop a system that will work for those who use it. Instead, we’ll hear complaints in coffee shops and around kitchen tables.” I was wrong, we’re hearing it in packed halls, not without reason.