Farming communities are fanning the flames of a new environmental movement that protects both farmers and habitat

by Bryan Gilvesy

Last Word winter 2008For nearly 30 years, my wife Cathy and I rushed out to our woodlot in an attempt to outrace the squirrels. We had, on our farm, one of the last remaining mature American chestnut trees, and we wanted to make sure its seeds were carried far and wide across our 40-hectare Carolinian woodlot. We were not driven by regulatory dictates or environmental science; we were simply doing what farmers do best: plant and grow things.

Here on the sand plain of Norfolk County, farmers grow a great variety of crops amid a great diversity of wildlife. From my grandfather’s generation on, our farming community played a large role in the reforestation of this county. Only 8 percent of Norfolk County was forested in the early 1900s; today, forest coverage is nearly 30 percent. Are we a rare breed here in Norfolk? Not at all. I have come across exceptional farm stewards all over Ontario. Individuals are growing rare tallgrass in the Kawartha Lakes region, rehabilitating trout habitat in Grey and Bruce counties and building bluebird trails in Elgin County.

But, as regulatory solutions to environmental problems began to roll out over the past decade, a troubling trend emerged in farm country. Farmers became increasingly silent. They began to fear the discovery of an endangered species on their land, which would mean that land would be taken out of use or become subject to some other restriction on farming practices. Ultimately, farmers feared the loss of long-term value for their farm or a decline in income. Regulations served as a financial disincentive to protecting endangered species, and the “shoot, shovel and shut up” sentiment was born. Cathy and I privately hoped that our chestnut seeding would not negatively affect our family’s future, so we kept quiet about our efforts.

There is an irony here that is not lost on the farming community. Habitat is routinely destroyed in Ontario urban areas to make way for explosive population growth. Nationally and provincially, progress, growth and wealth creation are always placed ahead of the environment. Meanwhile, down on the farm, environmental regulations are proliferating. The conservation community has become increasingly concerned about protecting and conserving what little natural capital is left in southern Ontario – and rightly so. But this approach might not do enough for wildlife and habitat protection. We need to create new wildlife habitat to replace what has been lost. And to do so, we need land.

Five years ago, Brian Abele, then chair of the Norfolk Land Stewardship Council, introduced me to the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) concept. The idea is that farms (and farmers) are generators of many environmental benefits (not the least of which is wildlife habitat) and that a system of incentives should be put in place to encourage environmental stewardship and fan the flames of a farm-based environmental movement. After all, the vast majority of lands in southern Ontario are in the hands of farmers, and any serious attempt at improving or creating new habitats for the protection of species must engage us.

The Norfolk County ALUS pilot project was launched at the beginning of this year. In only one planting season, new vegetative cover – tallgrass prairie, oak savannah, wetlands, trees, windbreaks and pollinator habitat – was seeded on 87 hectares of farmland. Most impressively, the project managed to actively engage 32 farm families in conservation efforts, and 14 more families expressed interest in getting involved. Farm-based solutions are tailored to food production, leading farmers to consider more natural solutions to farming problems and needs, such as planting pollinator habitat next to food crops to encourage the presence of native bees – a project now underway on several sites.

I call this an “all hands on deck” approach to species protection. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to strict notions of who gets funded to protect the environment. Instead, we should consider the farming community, the stewards of the land, in any discussion about species protection and habitat restoration. ALUS provides a way to harmonize the needs of the farmer with the need for more species protection for the benefit of all – a great way to fan the embers of stewardship into a full-blown fire.

Like many of the farmers involved in the project, Cathy and I are thrilled to be part of the solution, part of a bigger movement that promises to improve our corner of the world.

Bryan and Cathy Gilvesy run the Y U Ranch in Norfolk County, a Texas longhorn cattle operation that proudly operates with sustainability as its hallmark.