KAP, the largest general farm organization in Manitoba, and Delta Waterfowl have made considerable progress in promoting ALUS over the past five years. In February, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada teamed up with Environment Canada and the Province of Manitoba to convene the National Symposium on Environmental Goods and Services in Winnipeg. Between 200 and 300 people attended, representing the provincial and federal agriculture and environment ministries, farm organizations and conservation groups, including Ontario Nature. The federal agriculture and environment ministers have formed a working group to study EGS and are also providing some of the funding for pilot projects in Manitoba, Ontario and Prince Edward Island.

The Manitoba project was launched this spring in the Rural Municipality of Blanchard, west of Winnipeg, and will cost $1.8 million over three years — funds advanced by Ottawa, the provincial government, the municipality and two U.S. states. By early June, Sopuck says, 73 of 110 farmers, accounting for some 60 percent of farmland in Blanchard, had expressed interest in participating. The provincial crop insurance agency, Manitoba Agricultural Services Corp., will track the amount of farmland devoted to various conservation projects and will pay farmers at the end of year on a scale that roughly approximates the market rates for renting various types of land. For example, a producer who converts cultivated land back to grassland would receive $25 an acre. Preserving a wetland could be worth up to $15 an acre, which would drop to $7.50 if a farmer took hay off it once it had dried up late in the summer.

In Ontario, preliminary work on a pilot project began in January 2002 in Norfolk County, a farming community in the southwest part of the province that was once dominated by tobacco production. Bauke Vogelzang, a cash crop farmer and president of the Norfolk Federation of Agriculture (NFA), says an eight-member committee was formed to promote ALUS and sponsored several demonstration projects to raise public interest. In one case, the committee convinced four landowners to plant prairie grasses along creeks running through their properties to prevent erosion and to filter runoff from adjacent lands. The NFA, which is the lead organization behind the pilot project, is now trying to raise $2.4 million in federal, provincial and private funding that would be distributed among participating farmers over three years.

“The beauty of this proposal is that there are all kinds of possibilities,” says Vogelzang. “It’s not hard to convince farmers to do the right thing. Unfortunately, economics dictate that you crop every square inch of land.”

Sopuck is convinced that the potential benefits under ALUS could be immense, and he looks to the United States as a model. He says the U.S. government pumps $5 billion annually into landscape preservation through its Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and other initiatives, and that 18.2 million hectares of land — roughly equivalent to all the farmed land in Alberta — have been sowed to grasslands or kept as wetlands.

Sopuck also argues that current Canadian conservation practices, which largely involve purchases of small parcels of land by organizations like Ontario Nature, through its nature reserves system, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), will never achieve such numbers. He points out that these organizations and others have managed to acquire about 81,000 hectares in Saskatchewan, out of a total of 20.2 million hectares of farmland, whereas 1.2 million hectares have been saved in the state of North Dakota under the CRP.

What is natural capital?

Natural capital is a way of casting natural spaces – wetlands, grasslands, woodlots and the like – in economic terms. “It’s about trying to put a dollar sign on the ecological value of something,” says economist Nancy Olewiler, director of the public policy program at Simon Fraser University and author of The Value of Natural Capital in Settled Areas of Canada published by Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Of course, assigning economic value to an ecosystem is not straightforward. One approach is to apply a cost-benefit analysis to a particular situation. For example, paying private landowners to protect a watershed – a naturally occurring water purification system – may be cheaper than building a water-filtration plant. Says Olewiler: “I think what is more important than the term itself is what it connotes” – the notion that, like stocks, our natural resources, ecosystems and land should be invested in and protected.

Shannon Wilmot

Most conservation organizations base their programs on acquiring and saving lands in perpetuity and have deep reservations about ALUS if it is based on the U.S. model. Senior officers with NCC say the U.S. CRP allows farmers to opt in and out, though admittedly only after terms that can be at least 10 years. They can sign agreements to preserve lands for several years, collect their payments and then resume farming. “What happens if the price of lentils goes up three years after signing an agreement and the farmer puts the land back into production?” asks Lyle Saigeon, NCC’s Saskatchewan regional vice-president. “How is that a good investment for the taxpayer?”

Cost is the other issue. Sopuck says federal and provincial governments could spend $800 million a year on ALUS once fully implemented coast to coast, though some of that money would be existing spending that would be redirected toward ALUS. “There are good ideas in ALUS, but the cost, on an annual renewal basis, is not sustainable,” Saigeon argues. “I just can’t fathom where the money would come from.”

Says Ian Wishart, a KAP vice-president and Manitoba grain grower who was one of the earliest proponents of the concept, “Ultimately, if everyone is convinced that ALUS is the right program for Canada, there would have to be a federal-provincial funding agreement put in place. We’re a long way from there, but at least we’ve got everyone talking.”

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D’Arcy Jenish is a Toronto writer and author of Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and The Mapping of the Canadian West.