Friday, March 24, 2006

Interest runs high for largest farm auction in Sask. history

Sale will offer 83 quarters of farmland, 14 tractors

Jillian Pavlin, The StarPhoenix

Published: Thursday, March 23, 2006

The gavel will sound Friday near Stockholm on the largest single-day agricultural auction in the province's history.

Don Gillen is selling 83 quarters of land which, in itself, is 12 times larger than the average Saskatchewan farm, says the 2001 Statistics Canada farm census. Along with the land goes all the equipment needed to farm it, as well as two houses.

"It's a novelty," said Peter Kennedy, who is handling the auction for Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers. "You don't see many farm sales with six combines and 14 tractors."

Kennedy says the auction, which should run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., has attracted attention from as far away as Texas, Ireland and Scotland.

For Gillen, it's all about wiping the slate clean.

"I just think the smartest thing for us to do is to sell and hopefully do the best we can financially," he said in a phone interview from his farm, located about 60 kilometres south of Yorkton.

Gillen, 45, bought the land -- which is four hours from his home in Saskatoon -- about three years ago, intending to rent it out to other farmers.

At first interest was scarce, he says, because some of the fields needed improvement. Once the unwanted bush was removed, interest grew. But the first renter Gillen had didn't pay him for its use.

Unable to shake off his bad experience, Gillen said he'd "just as soon clean up and go in another direction," even though there are some farmers interested in renting the land today. He admits he'll be sad to see it go, but says today there's no guarantee that renters will be interested year after year.

"You can't blame (people) if they go and get an opportunity to better themselves," whether that is out of province or out of the industry, he said. "Just (not) knowing that they're going to be available from one year to the next is a concern."

An auction of this magnitude is "another symptom of the farm-income crisis," said Bill Brown, an agricultural economist for the University of Saskatchewan. About five per cent of the agricultural land in Saskatchewan is sold every year, says Brown, adding he expects to see even more turnover this year.

But "one man's pain is another one's bargain," he said. "The land will change hands and somebody else will try it."

Born and raised on a farm in the Dodsland-Kindersley area, Gillen recalls a time when farmers couldn't get their hands on farmland, as both the desire for it and price of it was so high.

He calls the area around his Stockholm farmland "a region of depression." The land is of good quality, but the "people just think, 'Well what's the bother, what's the hassle?' . . . They just feel that the government doesn't care about them."

Gillen still has a small amount of land elsewhere in the province that he'll hold onto. That is, as long as someone is willing to rent it. He says he wouldn't be surprised if this sale is a sign of things to come. But his optimism hasn't been entirely squashed.

"I hope that what comes out of this is a good thing for the people of Saskatchewan. . . . I'd like to see the farmers make a better return -- the honest farmer, and I stress honest farmer, that does good things for the land."

© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2006