Each summer, Gilles Matko estimates, the municipal office in Hearst gets anywhere from 15 to 20 visits from potential investors inquiring about available agricultural land.
And each summer, municipal staff scrambles to track down the private owners of various unused parcels so they can connect the two parties for a potential transaction.
Matko said it’s a scenario that’s repeated in many of the small communities dotting the Highway 11 corridor, which snakes through the fertile expanse of Ontario’s Clay Belt.
"You know that there's land there,” said Matko, general manager of the Nord-Aski Regional Economic Development Corp.
“It's just who do you contact, and do those folks actually want to be contacted?”
Now, with the Northeast Community Network (NeCN) acting as lead, those communities are collectively undertaking a new project to ease the process.
Through the Cochrane District Agri-food Land Assembly Project, the organization wants to connect with landowners who may be interested in renting, leasing or selling any property that isn’t already used for production.
NeCN, a non-profit stakeholder group focused on economic development that represents more than a dozen communities in the Cochrane District, is compiling a database that includes a list of parcels and owner contact information.
Property owners can supply their names and land details privately and their information will be kept confidential.
In the event a potential investor is interested, the municipal office can get in touch and make an introduction.
“The end result of this is that it will be a tool available at municipal town halls for the staff to be able to answer these questions,” said Matko, who chairs NeCN.
“It’s not something that’s going to be given out to everybody.”
Stretching across 180,000 square kilometres between Ontario and Québec, the Clay Belt has historically been robust beef-farming territory, but hosts cash crops as well.
With land prices skyrocketing in other parts of the country, the area has been eyed by producers from southern Ontario, Québec and even the U.S. as a more affordable option for farming.
Matko said most requests he’s fielded are from people seeking a minimum of 1,000 acres, which is difficult to find since most parcels in the area comprise 150 to 300 acres.
But, with a greater inventory to choose from, he expects it will be easier to piece together land packages that meet the requirements of investors.
“We may end up with a patchwork of available lands, but at least it’s something, because on the private side, there’s not really much data,” he said.
“We have all the data for the Crown land – that’s not hard to get – but again, it’s Crown land. So if an investor wants a part of that, they have to deal with the government.”
First underway in 2018, the land assembly project initially planned to gather ownership data through the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC). But mindful of privacy issues, NeCN scrapped that plan and went back to the drawing board, Matko said.
Now, the organization is taking a more discretionary approach, asking landowners to submit their details voluntarily via a survey.
Since first putting out the call in late June, Matko said they’ve received a little more than 100 respondents, a welcome return to kick off the process, although there's still more work to be done.
“We’re at the very beginning of putting the database together of available lands,” he said.
There’s no deadline for landowners to participate, and, recognizing that circumstances change, Matko said they can change their mind at any time.