Not buying local
By Ian Cumming
It was 7 a.m. and I was in the corner of a hotel lobby down in Bromont, Que. and I was in a panic and on the cell phone. I asked my 11-year-old daughter, Mei Le, to go through my Rolodex for a phone number.
The number was provided, the important call made, and the potential crisis my fault was averted.
Then I heard a heavily-accented Chinese voice behind me. “Mei Le, that means beautiful.”
“She is. Shes my daughter,” I replied.
The voice was Jeffrey Gao, the CEO of a company which now owns 100,000 acres in Saskatchewan and British Columbia and is constructing a $50-million hay processing plant in Tisdale, Sask. He had just signed a 30,000-tonne hay contract with China. He is, of course, looking for more land.
We were both on the same bus tour and so was one of the nations top hay dealers from Alberta. He knew Gao and would occasionally lean across our seat to talk about the industry.
Gao was on the cell phone a lot, talking Mandarin or English, and would disembark at a place and remain a lone figure in the background. He seemed to have a mindset and a way of looking at things that were all his own, but always understood the dollars.
Back on the bus, he would ask the “whys” and “whats” about where we had just been.
“I worked as a journalist for six years in China,” he said later in the day. “If you write about my company, I get to read it first and approve.”
“No,” I snorted, wanting to add, “this isnt China, were free.” But I didnt. He silently smiled and took another phone call.
After lunch, a car caught up with our tour and a young Chinese man disembarked. At the last farm on the tour, we were both in a cold machine shed on a dairy farm that was milking 240 cows with four robots.
I approached him standing alone at the back. “Where are you from in China?”
Xie was from Ghangzhou. “I was there for a week, 10 years ago,” I told him. “Thats where our daughter Mei Le is from.”
I reminisced with him about being the only non-Chinese person, as I held Mei Le one late afternoon in a crowded park beside the Pearl River, as bunches of people silently watched older men, squatting on the ground, playing chess.
“Mei Le, that means beautiful,” he said.
He then asked: “What is a Brillion seeder, that they were talking about?”
There was one to show him in the machine shed and having grown up using one, I was able to provide details.
“Tell me, what is a short ton?”
Xie, from Toronto, here with his pregnant wife, is handling investment money from China to specifically acquire Canadian farmland.
They had already bought a chunk in southern Alberta for hay, and he wanted details on Ontario land prices, per region, and their growing ability for various crops and return on investment.
Later in the day, I bumped into Glengarry hay producer Andre Laroque, who was wired about the Chinese hay buyers. He and a number of producers were signing a contract with the Chinese at the end of the week to supply 100,000 tonnes per year.
“The buyers will be here tomorrow, Ian,” he said. They were.
A Google search of Gaos companys website showed far more than what he modestly revealed.
As a former Eastern Ontario resident, it was jarring to see that Gaos Canadian-Chinese research and investment partnership was heavily involved in a Chinese university that had offered to send 800 students per year to Kemptville College.
In October, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City sold for $1.95 billion to a Chinese insurance company. The far more modest Hotel Bromont, where I stayed, “is owned by the Chinese,” the receptionist told me.
“You shouldnt upset farmers like you do with your writing,” an Ontario farmer scolded me later at the wine and cheese party. “Like the Chinese supposedly being here. No one believes thats happening.”
Ian Cumming is a former Glengarry County dairy farmer and now farms with his son in northern New York state.