Mr. Hu met with Ogema mayor Wayne Myren, who runs the local Napa Auto Parts store. The meeting went well and Mr. Hu returned a few weeks later with four investors, all recent arrivals from China. They too met with Mr. Myren and talked about farming, land values and the local rail line that makes shipping grain directly to Asia feasible. That became even more crucial to MaxCrop last year after the federal government announced it was ending the Wheat Board’s monopoly. “Their idea was there’s a link now with the Wheat Board gone, they have a flow through right through to China with grain,” Mr. Myren recalled. He explained that there are half a dozen farmer-owned elevators along the line, making it relatively easy to load cars destined for ports on the West Coast. Another option is to truck grain to Regina and send it on a container car to Asia.
Within months, several MaxCrop investors began buying up farms and driving up prices, doubling values overnight in some cases. The company ran ads in local Saskatchewan papers seeking farm sellers, promising a “quick closing” and “no commission.” It also puts ads in Chinese-language papers in Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere looking for investors.
One ad caught the eye of Terry Tian. He’d immigrated from China to Vancouver in 2008 and got a job working at Wok n’ Roll, a fast-food outlet at the Vancouver airport. He called MaxCrop, came to visit Ogema and ended up buying 800 acres, borrowing $400,000 from his father who has a business in China. Mr. Tian moved to Moose Jaw last year with his wife and two children and he’s now learning to farm with help from a local farmer. “I love it here,” he says with a wide smile. He plans to partner with MaxCrop for the long term and one day find buyers in China for his grain. “I think I’ve got a chance and I’m interested in doing that,” he says.
Long-time local farmers like Keith Bacon are leery about all the buying. He welcomes Mr. Zou and he has met some of the MaxCrop investors. But he wonders about how much they are paying and whether they are in over their heads. “If it was great farmland they were getting, it would have been bought by locals already,” Mr. Bacon said. When asked if he believes the new immigrants fully understand what they they are getting into, he replied: “No. There is some issue there.”
Mayor Myren isn’t so sure either. He is open to new arrivals and said Ogema has been among the few towns in Canada to market itself in China. The town has a Filipino population and counts five different languages among its tiny population. But Mr. Myren has found Mr. Hu’s tactics aggressive at times and he got testy when MaxCrop put his picture on the company’s website without permission.
“I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I honestly don’t,” he said when asked about the immigrant investors. But then he paused and added: “Who’s going to farm the land when our generation is gone?”
MaxCrop has grown rapidly across the province since Mr. Hu’s visit in 2010. The company has attracted roughly 40 investors, all new immigrants, and manages around 70,000 acres across the province. It also operates a 7,000-acre farm, with separate investors, and it is looking into acquiring processing facilities. The company’s plan is to use the connections of its investors to open new markets in China and ship grain directly to buyers, via container ships. It is already working on a deal to ship malt barley grown on the MaxCrop farm to buyers in Shanghai.
“This is the next step for agriculture,” said Jason Dearborn, a former provincial politician who is MaxCrop’s chief operating officer. “We have Mandarin speakers and we have a vision that is going to link us into that marketplace.”