Priced Out, Farmland Edition

As fertile land becomes juicy investment, multinational players sit on Robson Valley farms.

By Thomas Rohner 9 Jul 2014 |

Thomas Rohner is a freelance investigative journalist reporting from the Robson Valley. You can email him here.

Beyond an iron gate, with "no trespassing" signs and hidden security cameras overhead, an overgrown driveway stretches past young pines. It ends in a clearing dotted with sand pits where the Lee Road schoolhouse used to stand. The fruit trees that stood beside the schoolhouse are gone too. Three deer, ears twitching, keep a watchful guard from an adjacent field of weeds.

"I just don't understand, why did they have to tear down the schoolhouse?" asks Lelani Arris, former owner of the vacant property. She sold the land to Fraser River Landholdings Ltd., a company co-directed by Mark Walter and Robert Patton Jr., according to BC Registry Services. Walter and Patton are billionaire businessmen from the United States.

"Dunster's always been this open community, everybody knows their neighbours," said Chuck McNaughton, a short but burly lifetime resident of the area. "Now there's locks and gates and security cameras everywhere."

A community meeting held June 4 in Dunster discussed what many in the valley have observed over the past decade: large parcels of land bought and then, to varying degrees, abandoned; property prices as steep and harsh as the mountainsides that flank the valley floor; and how difficult it is for people of ordinary means -- often young families -- to move into the valley.

"The ultimate result of abandoned properties is the death of the community," Arris, who is also president of the Dunster Community Association, said. It's not change people in the Dunster area fear; it's the slow strangulation of their farming community as newcomers are priced out while fertile land is left empty and fallow.

A global land grab

All over the world, people are buying up farmland, says Dr. Lenore Newman, the Canada Research Chair of Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley. Dr. Newman is tasked with studying the Canadian agriculture industry in the context of global trends.

"We're in the middle of a global land rush. It's not just your valley, it's not just the province -- it's the whole world," she said. "There's a lot of big money sluicing around the world and land is one of the best investments going."

In B.C., foreign landowners don't face any more restrictions than Canadians do. "This incredible pressure on land in B.C. is pricing it out of the range of everyone who was born and raised here and who makes an average Canadian salary," Dr. Newman said.

Fraser River Landholdings Ltd. owns at least six properties, totaling nearly 1,000 acres in the Robson Valley according to data compiled from the B.C. Land Title and Survey database. Walter confirmed these figures via email through a media rep. "The property is planned to be left as is, agricultural and recreational," the email read.

In 2012 Walter and Patton Jr. bought the L.A. Dodgers for a record $2.15 billion as part of Guggenheim Baseball Management, according to Major League Baseball's website. Walter is also a founding partner, and current CEO, of financial assets management firm Guggenheim Partners LLC, with over $200 billion in managed assets, according to their website. Walter is also a trustee of the storied and powerful Guggenheim Foundation.

In the global village, where global capital permeates the local economy, national boundaries become almost irrelevant. Local community members can invest their time, labour and dreams, but how does this stack up against pools of global capital, often impervious and ignorant to local concerns?

"The problem," said Dr. Newman, "is this idea of parking on the land; using land as a GIC or a safety deposit box."

Free parking

"If I were king," Pete Amyoony says, chuckling while sitting in the kitchen of his small cabin in Dunster, "I would make a law that says if you buy a piece of land and don't put it to good use, don't improve it, then you're not allowed to sell it for more than you bought it."

A fantastical notion, but one that belies a certain wisdom. Amyoony has called the valley home for over 30 years, has worked hard to pay off his 10-acre farm and is very active in the community. But circumstances have changed since he first moved into the valley.

"Land has become a commodity: to be bought, sat on, sold for more."

Arris knows this all too well. She still feels intimately attached to the property on Lee Road she sold to Fraser River Landholdings: her ex-husband perished in a tragic fire in one of the buildings.

Just after selling the lot, Arris wanted to move a shed from the Lee Road property to her home up the street. She was pulling the shed up Lee Road with a tractor when her realtor called; somebody had seen her and called the realtor, who told Arris the sale was final and the shed must stay with the property. The owners later removed the shed.

Steep prices for BC's next generation

A warm burst of fish odour greets you at the door of Amyoony's greenhouse. "I farm organically, with fish fertilizer," he explains.

Despite scaling back on farming as he nears retirement, Amyoony has a tireless energy. He hops off his riding lawnmower -- "Those clippings will go in my compost" -- and points across a rectangular plot, tilled and planted, which stretches about one hundred metres and ends just before a derelict school bus.

"That's the magic school bus," he smiles. The soft sound of clattering dishes escapes the open windows of the bus. "Tim and his wife Susan are living in there, with their two children."

Tim Haus, from Germany, and his American wife Susan Umstot, first travelled through Dunster on a family cycling trip a few years ago. They both fell in love with the area, especially the strong sense of community. They met in the Middle East, working for Doctors Without Borders; Haus as an engineer and Umstot as a nurse. They decided to make Dunster their home.

"We came here to live in the nature," Haus says at Amyoony's kitchen table with coffee in hand, eyeing his loaves of bread in the oven. "To live for the nature, and with the nature."

Haus' short hair is tousled, his hands slightly soiled. He's rigged up a container to catch rainwater so his family can shower outdoors. It hasn't rained much lately, though. "You can live well off the land here," he says.

"You sure can," Amyoony smiles broadly with a hint of pride. "I feel like one of the richest people in the valley when I walk into my root cellar or see my canning cupboard… the food that's grown out of this place has been amazing."

"See, even in Pete's day, people moved here for philosophical reasons, more than economic reasons," Haus says.

Amyoony amicably disagrees, shaking his head. "I wanted to find affordable land that I could grow on. Up until the '90s you could buy a quarter section for $25 to $30,000, but now it's $300 to $400,000."

Many valley residents, especially farmers, are retiring now, Amyoony says. "And they sell their land to the highest bidder, and I understand that. They worked their butts off, and that's their pension."

"But the next generation, we know we won't receive a pension, or as much of a pension," Haus replies. "We are not able to pay $300,000 for a piece of property because we will never make that kind of money living a lifestyle that we believe is good for the world, and not just good for the pocketbook."

No small slices for BC's farmland

Haus has spoken with farmers willing to sell him a portion of their farmland -- tracts spotted with gullies and rocks -- but restrictions in the regional district's community plan on subdividing land found within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) have so far thwarted him.

The Regional District, with delegated authority from the Agricultural Land Commission, ensures that farmable land is not divided into parcels smaller than 150 acres, as per the community plan. This way farmland is kept in larger, more productive tracts and intervening subdivisions are avoided.

ALR land stretches on either side of the Fraser River. Residents mostly agree the land commission's aim is positive, but on the local level it makes it difficult to attract new families and farmers into the valley. With soaring real estate prices, larger parcels are that much more expensive.

The land commission includes incentives to farm within the ALR, said Lara Beckett, chair of the district's Agricultural Land Use standing committee. "If you actually farm the land and make enough income on it for agricultural status, you can get a significant tax reduction." But are there incentives to dissuade wealthy landowners who can afford the higher tax rates from abandoning their properties, leaving them unproductive?

"No, not really," Beckett said. "It's private land, so to some degree people make their own choices… It's unfortunate, especially if it's been productive in the past, to see it being taken over by weeds and trees; it's a lot of work to get it back into production."

Tracking the valley's locked gates

Over the past 25 years McNaughton and a neighbour have tracked farmland ownership in the valley, labeling each subsequent owner on a series of maps. Wielding a pen in calloused, scarred hands, he goes through some of the oldest names in the valley.

McNaughton can trace his roots in the Dunster area to 1920, when his grandfather bought land -- the parcel right beside his home, in fact. McNaughton brings the maps to the Ice Cream Social sometimes, and to other reunions where people regale each other with stories of days past.

The maps paint a picture of absentee landowners too.

Sitting in his workshop, McNaughton is quick to point out the term "absentee landowners" is too vague: there are oil-patch workers who visit on weekends and plan to return for good once the property's paid off and there are others who can't afford to live on the land they bought, but rent it out to local farmers. These landowners contribute to the community, he says.

Which absentee landowners are the real concern? "The ones that buy it, lock the gate and walk away, and then keep buying more." McNaughton is drafting a letter addressed to Mark Walter, which he plans to bring to the next community meeting on July 15. "There's a chance that guys like Mark don't have any idea about this stuff, how they're affecting our community."

It's long been a harsh reality that economics determine whether a community thrives or perishes. But in Dunster, the community's economic basis -- farming -- is still viable. "Every parcel along the river is crucial," McNaughton says. But farming is being undermined by the current land grab, and by a lack of policies that ensure farmland is actually farmed.

Is the value of farming and food security losing out to the power of global speculation? Co-director Patton bought property in Fort Worth, Texas in 2005 for $6.5 million, and then sold it two months later for $15.7 million, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last year.

But he's also a farmer: he's been buying enormous ranches all over the United States, ensuring surplus hay for his cattle during the droughts that devastate smaller farmers. He's managed to keep a low profile despite his enormous wealth, which, in the interview with the Star-Telegram, he attributed to his own community: "If I had grown up in Dallas, it would probably have been different. But this is how you act in Fort Worth."

With another community meeting fast approaching, Dunster area residents hope for similar participation from their billionaire neighbours. When asked if a representative from Fraser River Landholdings would be present on July 15, the media representative wrote, "We don't know if representatives of Frazier (sic) are going to the meeting," spelling "Fraser" incorrectly.

"Everyone's saying everywhere, small communities are dying. But bugger it, this one's not gonna die," McNaughton said.

A version of this story was previously published in the Rocky Mountain Goat News.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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