05/20/2015 11:24 EDT | Updated 05/20/2016 05:59 EDT

Debate launched over who can own Saskatchewan farmland

Noting that some Saskatchewan farmland may already be in the hands of foreign investors, Saskatchewan's Minister of Agriculture Lyle Stewart announced the start of public consultations on the issue.

"We've had a substantial number of countries that have either attempted to purchase farmland in Saskatchewan or possibly have — by illegal means I would say under the act as it exists — attained an interest in farmland," Stewart said during a media conference Wednesday in Regina.

Stewart added that the province doesn't yet have any evidence to prove that foreign investors are acquiring land illegally.

The consultation, which will be done through written submissions, comes five weeks after Saskatchewan imposed a moratorium on the purchase of farmland by non-family trusts (with more than 10 beneficiaries) and pension plans.

Under current law, foreign investors are not allowed to own more than 10 acres of farmland in the province.

The move to limit trust funds and pension plans was put in place after a proposed farmland investment by the Canada Pension Plan attracted attention, which Stewart mentioned on Wednesday.

"CPP was above board enough to express their intentions to purchase farmland in the province," he said, adding that government lawyers noted the investment board of CPP is not barred from purchasing land.

"[Justice] made it clear that CPP Investment Board would be eligible to purchase land," Stewart said.

A moratorium, however, was announced April. 13, affecting other investors such as pension plans and investment trusts.

Stewart said the consultation process will not include any public meetings because he feels such gatherings may not encourage open debate.

"Very few people get heard at public meetings," he said. "And certain individuals tend to monopolize the time and even bully others into not making submissions that they might have been prepared to make if they can do it in privacy."

Stewart said submissions would be accepted until August.

Issue feels decided already, farmer says

The consultation process has already generated some skepticism.

"If it was a true consultation process, he wouldn't have already stopped the Canada Pension Plan from buying some more land," Jim Zinkhan, a Regina-area farmer, told CBC News Wednesday. "He would have waited until the consultation process was over before deciding what he was going to do."

Zinkhan added he would like to see the market wide open.

"I believe anybody should be able to buy it," he said. "Foreigners, institutional buyers, anybody."

Zinkhan said ownership limitations only hurt farmers.

"Homeowners can sell to whoever they want to, businesses can sell to whoever they want to, but now they are saying that farmers can't," he said. "It is basically just discriminating against farmers."

Moratorium move is 'risky,' real estate agent says

The province's move to put limits on farmland ownership has one real estate agent raising questions.

"To put a moratorium on in midstream is risky," Harry Sheppard, from the Sutton Group, said adding that Saskatchewan already has a very restrictive ownership law.

"Don't tighten. Don't relax," Sheppard said. "If the rules were relaxed, our land values will double or triple more or less overnight. But I don't think that is a good thing at all. But as far as tightening them further, I think we are tight enough already."

Sheppard noted that investors with large holdings play a role in helping young farmers get started, by renting out a portion of their land to those new to the industry.

"The young farmer can't afford to buy the machinery, the inputs like fuel, seed,  spray fertilizer all of the buildings, plus all the land," he said. "That is very difficult to do when you are getting started. So if the investor buys the land, and the tenant — the young farmer is the tenant — that helps them get started."