At first glance, Sheldon Zou looks like any other farmer sipping coffee in the dining room of The Little Amego Inn in Ogema, Sask. He wears a rumpled hat, drives a pickup truck and talks earnestly about canola prices.
While most of the other farmers in the café have been tilling soil in the area for decades, Mr. Zou is a newcomer – to farming, to Ogema and to Canada. He immigrated from China in 2008, an entrepreneur with a background in engineering and a brief history of running a broadband company in the U.S. Mr. Zou, 40, was at loose ends at first, shuttling between Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto looking for a business opportunity. But during a drive across Saskatchewan, he became enchanted with the Prairies, and the investment possibilities of farmland.
He took the plunge a year ago, putting down $1.5-million to buy 4,000 acres near Ogema, roughly 115 kilometres south of Regina. Soon he moved to Ogema with his wife Linda, daughters Jennifer and Angela, and friend Alice Jin, who was so new to Canada she had notes with English words plastered around her apartment in Regina. Ms. Jin bought the Rolling Hills Restaurant while the Zous became farmers.
“I am still trying to buy more land,” said Mr. Zou, a landed immigrant, who has rented out most of his property and farms the rest with local farmers who are teaching him the ropes. He hopes to one day manage all the land himself and to recruit more immigrants to Ogema. “I think that if I can teach basic farming to new immigrants, I see an opportunity,” he said. “It’s very easy for Chinese to accept this idea to buy farmland. It just makes sense.”
The Zous are part of a new wave of immigrant investors who are changing the face of Saskatchewan’s countryside. These investors, who come mainly from China, South Korea and India, are buying up farmland, by the hectare, often in cash, and frequently becoming landlords to dozens of local farmers.
Most are motivated by the province’s booming agriculture sector and a sense that Saskatchewan farmland, while soaring in price, is still remarkably cheap. Many are also convinced that the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly over the sale of wheat and barley will open opportunities to sell grain directly to buyers in Asia. For these investors, the plan is simple: Buy up acres of land, partner with a local farmer to grow the crops, and then ship the produce directly to customers in China. The lure is simple too: The possibility of profits from those sales to Asia, and the hope that land prices will continue to rise and drive up the value of their land assets.
That’s all still a ways off, and new immigrants represent only a portion of the roughly 30,000 annual farmland sales in Saskatchewan. But real estate agents say the number of deals to non-residents has soared in the past couple of years and the influx of Chinese immigrants in particular is getting noticed.
“For farmland, especially Saskatchewan farmland, they think it is much, much undervalued,” said Justin Yin, a real estate agent in Saskatoon who immigrated from China in 2004 and specializes in selling farmland to Chinese immigrants in Toronto and Vancouver. “So they think that’s the best place to put their money.” Mr. Yin, who also owns nearly 2,000 acres, has been in business for four months but he already has roughly 100 clients including a group of 10 investors who have put up $20-million and told him to buy whatever he can find.
The influx is creating mixed feelings in many communities. There is a long history of Chinese immigrants coming to Western Canada and good part of it is unhappy: a head tax, as well as prohibitions on voting and on owning farmland. Chinese immigrants still represent only a fraction of the province’s population, but the number has been growing particularly in the past couple of years as buyers arrive by the busload to scout out farmland. While older farmers planning to retire are thrilled to have a growing pool of new potential buyers, many worry about the long-term impact of so many new immigrants arriving with little knowledge of agriculture and often overpaying for farms.