The co-op that operates the 231-hectare Cape Mabou community pasture was forced to close by the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board, according to co-op volunteers.
“I just think it represents the wrong approach from the start when they (the Farm Loans Board) didn’t give us a chance to look at the lease or talk about it before sending it to us to be just signed,” said Marilyn MacDonald, president of the Cape Mabou Pasture Co-operative.
In a statement released to the Chronicle Herald on Friday, the Agricultural Loans Board confirmed its commitment to the community pasture program which includes approximately 2,500 hectares spread over seven separate pastures.
The program is intended “to help farmers reduce their production costs or expand their operations,” the council statement read.
“The council’s role is to protect these lands and ensure that they remain in agricultural production, accessible to all Nova Scotia farmers and available for the future.
In its statement, the Farm Loans Board reiterated information that appeared recently in the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture newsletter and in the weekly The Oran, which serves Inverness County, where the Cape Mabou pasture.
The council ‘can confirm that the plan is for Cape Mabou to be open to farmers this year,’ the advertisements and statement read.
The council is a “government lending body and cannot comment on confidential negotiations between the council and potential tenants,” the statement said. “The council has active leases for all active community pastures in the province, with the exception of Mabou pasture, and will contract out the management of this pasture for this year to ensure its accessibility to farmers.”
Although the board of directors used the confidentiality of the negotiations as a non-comment, the cooperative was not constrained by such restrictions.
In a summary of the co-op’s 2022 annual general meeting, MacDonald said the Farm Loans Board, after many years of ignoring the operation of Cape Mabou Pasture, had commissioned a consultant’s report in 2020 and, to late spring, had presented the co-op with a 10-year lease and a one-year operating contract to sign and return.
MacDonald said the co-op’s board was very concerned about parts of the agreement, particularly that upon the signing of the lease and an operating agreement, “all of our assets became the property of the Agricultural Loan Board”.
This included a new farm building, tractor, gates and a scale.
MacDonald said there was no exit clause allowing the co-op to terminate the lease or operating agreement, but the farm loans board could terminate at any time without restriction.
The Cap Mabou pasture, in operation since 1955, is the only one of the seven provincial pastures that does not belong to the agricultural loans commission. The Cap Mabou pasture is jointly owned by the provincial department of natural resources and seven private landowners, who own more than 80 hectares out of a total of 231 hectares of pasture.
Still, MacDonald said the leases were the same for all seven pastures.
At a meeting of the co-op’s board in September, MacDonald said it was agreed that the co-op’s board members and their lawyer would draft a more flexible agreement to present to the loan board agricultural.
In November, the co-op compiled a historical grazing review that showed a total cumulative operating loss over 65 years of $192,054, despite cumulative income that included $257,000 from grants, subsidies and non-direct income. .
The financial summaries, showing a “dismal and unsustainable financial situation under the existing co-operative model”, were forwarded to Finance Minister Allan MacMaster, MPP for Inverness, Jen Thompson of the Farm Loans Board, the Committee on action of community pastures and others.
The co-op had Zoom meetings with MacMaster on Nov. 29, 2021, and Jan. 24, 2022, where they learned their MP hadn’t even reviewed the financial information passed to him, MacDonald said.
The co-op sent a letter to Agriculture Minister Greg Morrow in late January outlining its difficult financial situation, but was directed to the Community Pasture Support Funding Program. The support program is structured primarily for funding capital expenditures and infrastructure improvements, not year-over-year operating expenditures, MacDonald said.
“Once again, our need for working capital has fallen on deaf ears.”
The co-op’s board met with Thompson and a representative from the Department of Agriculture in mid-February and was advised to submit proposed changes to the agreements.
The Agricultural Loans Board responded to the proposed lease and operating changes by emphasizing that permanent facilities should remain on pasture, that is, facilities that could be moved but which the Agricultural Loans Board should reasonably consider as part of the pasture infrastructure.
The loan board also argued that all income, except grazing fees, generated from land over $500 would be held by the board for approved disbursement and that the co-op would need an accountant. to prepare the financial statements.
MacDonald called the seven parcels of private land that intersect with the pastures “the elephant in the room”, with great potential to interfere with current grazing operations, particularly access to water and uninsured liabilities.
MacDonald said the co-op was notified on April 27 that the Farm Loans Board would operate the pasture this season and the ensuing advertisement appeared in the local newspaper this week.
The provincial Department of Agriculture meanwhile announced on Friday, through the Agricultural Loans Board, the purchase of 125 hectares of land in Cape John, Pictou County, for $1.1 million. . This land complements the Cape John community pasture and brings the total area of active community pasture in the province to over 2,500 hectares.
At Cape Mabou, most of the voluntary work to fence off the property and other preparations would normally be well advanced by now to prepare pasture for the influx of some 450 head of cattle from early June.
“It’s definitely a shock, quite disappointing,” Irwin Jewell, a farm owner in York, about 10 kilometers northeast of Charlottetown, said of the possibility that pasture may not be open this year. .
Jewell had delivered 140 head of cattle to pasture in the past few years because “they have nice grass up there and they look after them, take care of them”.
“It’s a service you can’t find” anywhere else, he said.
Jewell, who along with his son once owned 350 head of cattle, would not need the service this year anyway as he is in the process of selling his cattle and the farm.
“If I still had my barns full of them (cattle) and I was planning to take them there, it would be a blow,” Jewell said. “If you’re counting on something and you don’t really know…”
MacDonald said the Farm Loans Board “is making plans to open the pasture, but how they’re going to be able to do that, I don’t know.”
“It’s a very confusing situation for me, I don’t understand it, given the good faith and all the commitment and quality of volunteerism that has been put into this establishment over the past three or four years. , to get to the point where they (the Farm Loans Board) just want to come in, say see you later, leave all your stuff and we’ll take care of it.
MacDonald said there hasn’t been a lot of creative thinking on the part of the farm loans board to move away from a volunteer-dependent format at a time when people are no longer willing to give as much work. volunteer.
“We’re talking about a pretty small shortfall here,” MacDonald said of what the co-op would need to continue operating the pasture.
“We’re talking like $50,000, $60,000.”
Noting the Farm Loans Board’s $1.1 million spending announcement, MacDonald said: ‘If they’re just going to operate (Cape Mabou) with their own operating money, what was the difference in giving us operating money to transition to a model that might work in the future.”