March 10, 2024

#15: Land Assembly, Financialization and Agriculture in Canada’s North

Building on her long-lasting interest in settler-colonial land transformations in Canada, Sarah Rotz focuses on a hitherto neglected topic: The expansion of large-scale agriculture in the country’s north. Focusing on the intertwined processes of capitalist frontier-making, large-scale land assembly, and financialization, she engages with the questions of whether such processes reify settler colonial land relations and enable further Indigenous land dispossessions. She also engages with the crucial question of what alternative models of agricultural world-building could look like, contributing to one of the key themes of this website.


Land transformation is the term used to describe what happens when people change the ecology and use of land, whether through extraction, commercial development, or agriculture etc. Researchers are increasingly alarmed to see the extent to which such transformation is tied to financialization. As historical and current cases show, land transformation often “unfolds through intense conflict over its ownership and use, and class struggle over access, appropriation, and distribution of the gains obtained through financialization”  (Swyngedouw and Ward 2022) [1]. In ongoing settler colonial contexts like Canada, a key question centers on who drives financial investment, as well as what–and whose–futures land investment and financialization brings forth (Duncan, et al., 2022 [2]; Rotz, 2017 [3])? Furthermore, to what extent does land financialization reproduce settler-land relations and further enable Indigenous land dispossession? For this piece, I will draw on calls to expand agriculture in Canada’s north to consider the links between settler colonialism, land transformation, and financialization.
Cleared roads in plantation, Canada. Source: Lawrence Hislop 2014,

In settler colonial states like Canada, settlers have always made various attempts to extract value from the land, including agriculture. Yet, in northern and remote regions, development projects can be relatively difficult to establish, and often fail. Soil and weather conditions, poor access to markets, and a lack of industrial, export-oriented infrastructure all make it more difficult for northern and remote regions to develop industries that serve dominant domestic and global economies. In several regions of northern Ontario, settlers tried their hand at farming in the early twentieth century, but abandoned it as the more lucrative mining and logging jobs became available. Since then, many landowners have left their land ‘idle’, have sold harvesting rights to logging companies, and some of the land has reverted to ‘the Crown’. As climate change worsens and land prices continue to rise, renewed efforts at agricultural development are afoot. Currently, however, financial markets and investment are far more entrenched than they were a hundred years ago.
In some areas of the north, decision-makers are pursuing a strategy of land assembly to promote agricultural development and encourage investor interest in converting land for agriculture. Land assembly (also known as block assembly) is a process of combining adjacent parcels of land to form a single, larger property (Fagan, 2022) [4]. This is a fairly common practice for commercial and industrial development by investment firms, and is sometimes used in more remote regions for extraction projects that require large areas of land, such as mining. Most obviously, land assembly activity tells us something about the nature and purpose of the proponents’ interest in the land. Regardless of whether it succeeds, land assembly indicates an attempt to create an asset from land that is perceived as currently ‘unproductive’ or ‘underutilized’ (Ross 2023 [5]). After all, under capitalism, “land (without capital invested in it or labour performed on it) has no value defined as socially necessary labour time. It constitutes a ‘free’ gift of nature”, which then gains value through labour that produces an exchange value commensurate with the money commodity (Swyngedouw and Ward 2022, 5) [6].
One goal of land assembly is financialization: to bring financial institutions, actors, markets and operations into the purview of the land in question–in this case, through the prospect of land transformation for agricultural development. By converting land from forest to larger-scale agricultural plots, land is promoted to financial actors as a potentially higher-value asset with the capacity to generate ongoing revenues. If investors buy into the agricultural expansion program, financial operations gain importance across the region. As a result, profit-making activity may increasingly occur “through financial channels rather than through productive activities” (Langford 2024, 11) [7]. Financialization, then, is a system and strategy of accumulation, and land assembly is one means of getting there.
Put simply, land assembly organises land in such a way that seeks to stimulate interest from deeper and deeper pockets of capital. It works to directly reconfigure the value of land (Gidwani and Upadhya 2023) [8]. Consolidating parcels allows for a wider range of development and revenue-generating options and, therefore, opportunities for assetization. Thus, rather than accruing profits from the appreciated re-sale value of the land, the usage of land may be capitalized in ways that create new revenue streams and forms of value. In the words of Birch and Ward, “Something capable of generating rent is created through enclosure, then abstracted into an asset through capitalization of its future revenues, and this asset acts with material power on the present”(Birch and Ward 2022, 2) [9].
Within this context, I ask: What opportunities are being negotiated? What futures are being created, what futures are being destroyed, and in whose interest? Historical and current cases give us a sense of the answers. Under ongoing settler colonial capitalism, land, industries, and economies are shaped by and for settlers, and settler industrialists more specifically. This case of land expansion in the north seems no different. The goal of the land assembly project is to establish agriculture as a third pillar of economic development alongside logging and mining (Autio, 2022 [10]; Timmins, 2022 [11]). Given the failed history of farming in the region, the hope is that land consolidation might encourage financial investment in a way that creates a future for agriculture more akin to that of the south, just through different means. Rather than 1500-acre fields of grain corn, or soy, the commodities promoted in the north are beef and, increasingly, ‘cool season’ grains.
So, what exactly is the future of agriculture in the north, and what role will financialization play?
We could imagine a few different paths, but the bottom line for many proponents is that ‘letting the market decide’ will most effectively set the industry up for success moving forward (Autio, 2022) [12]. One path may look like the ‘sale lease-back’ model of farming where an investment firm buys up a property and then leases it or rents it out to a farmer who is looking to expand their operation (Duncan et al. 2022 [13]; Sommerville and Magnan 2015 [14]). This model is typically only open to large-scale farmers with enough capital and equipment to expand their production. Furthermore, this model of investment increasingly relies on big data and precision agriculture technologies to maximize efficiency and revenues for investors through land and equipment rent capture, data and technology transfer, and land value speculation. Our research on farmland investors in Canada reveals that financial investment in farmland is creating “a pressure for farmers to grow in size” as well as “a pressure to adopt agricultural technologies, and in the cases where farmers have sold their land to investment firms but are still managing it, their choices for land management might be limited” (Duncan et al. 2022, 9) [15].
Alternative paths might include more traditional owner-operator models of cattle pasture where owners continue to rely on bank loans to fund their production. This model has been the bedrock of agricultural expansion in Canada for the past 40 years, but has shown to be ecologically, socially and economically unsustainable for many farmers (Rotz & Fraser, 2015 [16]; Rotz, Fraser, & Martin, 2017 [17]). Farm debt in Canada has doubled since 2000 and is now over $106 billion. During this time, farmers have taken on new, unpaid debt at a rate of approximately 2.7 billion Canadian dollars per year. So now, every dollar in net income has been augmented by 1.8 dollars in additional cashflow in the form of new, unrepaid debt (Qualman 2019) [18]. As a result, many farmers have lost hope in passing their farms along to a new generation of farmers, and instead expect to cede/sell it to investment and development firms, leading us back to the first path.
Farm debt Canada, 1971-2017. Redrawn from: Qualman 2019.

The north has an opportunity to choose a different future from the one that has played out across southern Canada and the U.S., but it is not immune to the strong market, political, and ideological forces driving it along the same path of industrialization, consolidation, and financialization.
An obvious problem with this path concerns bigger picture questions of world-building and world-breaking. What kinds of futures are being actively pursued, and at what (and whose) expense? And how are these emerging strategies of world-building different from colonial pursuits of the past? For instance, how is introducing beef into native, and increasingly threatened, moose and caribou territory qualitatively different from what our settler people did to the bison, and therefore, the bison-reliant Indigenous nations (such as the Cree, Dene, Dakota, and Lakota, among several others) (Daschuk 2013 [19]; Feir, Gillezeau, and Jones 2023 [20])? Especially in light of the degree of habitat and population destruction that our settler peoples have already inflicted on them. For many Indigenous peoples and allies, the response is a greater understanding of and support for moose and caribou habitat and populations (Anishnabe Moose Research Committee 2022 [21]), as opposed to further land clearing, conversion, and destruction.
Of course, agriculture has, and continues to be a key means of enclosing land and resources for settler livelihoods and economies (Rotz, 2017) [22]. And frequently it does so in ways that expressly destroy Indigenous life and food ways–and Indigenous world-building more broadly. The industrial model of agricultural expansion, by design, makes it nearly impossible for the sustainable co-existence of other habitats (especially habitats that can maintain the complex web of other-than-human relations native to those regions), and in turn, destroying the livelihoods and practices that rely on them. As a result, industrialized agricultural expansion and world-building has meant dispossession and disaster for many Indigenous peoples, the land, and all those striving to re-build and nurture vital habitat. So, rather than another round of colonial agri-food industrialization, how can we push for something different?
[1] [6] Swyngedouw E and Ward C (2022) Land As an Asset. In: The Political Economy of Land: Rent, Financialization and Resistance, no. September: 40–55. DOI:
[2] [13] [15] Duncan E, Rotz S, Magnan A and Bronson K (2022) Disciplining Land through Data: The Role of Agricultural Technologies in Farmland Assetization. In: Sociologia Ruralis. DOI:
[3] [22] Rotz S (2017) ‘They Took Our Beads, It Was a Fair Trade, Get over It’: Settler Colonial Logics, Racial Hierarchies and Material Dominance in Canadian Agriculture. In: Geoforum 82. DOI:
[4] Fagan, 2022. Digging Into Land Assemblies. REMI Network.
[5] Ross, 2023. Clay Belt municipalities have acres of farm land to promote. Northern Ontario Business.
[7] Langford Z (2024) Assembling Financialisation: Local Actors and the Making of Agricultural Investment. Berghahn Books.
[8] Gidwani V and Upadhya C (2023) Articulation Work: Value Chains of Land Assembly and Real Estate Development on a Peri-Urban Frontier. In: Environment and Planning A 55 (2): 407–27. DOI:
[9] Birch K and Ward C (2022) Assetization and the ‘New Asset Geographies.’ In: Dialogues in Human Geography, no. 2007. DOI:
[10] [12] Autio (2022) Sowing seeds to grow Northern agriculture. July, 2022.
[11] Timmins (2022) Highlighting the North’s Agricultural Potential … One Farm at a Time! December 2022.
[14] Sommerville M and Magnan A (2015) ‘Pinstripes on the Prairies’: Examining the Financialization of Farming Systems in the Canadian Prairie Provinces. In: The Journal of Peasant Studies 42 (1): 119–44. DOI:
[16] Rotz S and Fraser ED (2015) Resilience and the Industrial Food System: Analyzing the Impacts of Agricultural Industrialization on Food System Vulnerability. In:  Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 5 (3): 459–73. DOI:
[17] Rotz S, Fraser ED and Martin RC (2017) Situating Tenure, Capital and Finance in Farmland Relations: Implications for Stewardship and Agroecological Health in Ontario, Canada. In: The Journal of Peasant Studies 46 (1): 1–23. DOI:
[18] Qualman D (2019) Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis: A Transformative Strategy for Canadian Farms and Food Systems.
[19] Daschuk J (2013) Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. University of Regina Press.
[20] Feir DL, Gillezeau R and Jones ME (2023) The Slaughter of the Bison and Reversal of Fortunes on the Great Plains. In: Review of Economic Studies 500 (May): 1–37. DOI:
[21] Anishnabe Moose Research Committee (2022) Anishnabe Knowledge and Governance for the Protection of Moose Populations in and around La Verendrye Park, Quebec. In: Anishnabe Moose Studies.