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Tobacco’s demise not only hit farmers in the pocketbook but also threatened the fragile ecosystem of the productive, but highly erodible soil of the Norfolk sand plain.
Hundreds of cedar hedgerows have been planted in the last half century, often sheltering fields of 50 acres or less.
“Because tobacco was so lucrative, we were able to plant hedgerows and retire a lot of marginal land,” says Bryan Gilvesy. “Many people were afraid we’d go backwards, lose those things and it would be a dustbowl again.”
So there was considerable interest when a project called ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services) started up and offered farmers a fee for providing ‘ecological goods and services.’
It’s not big money. An acre that’s reforested or used for wetland rehabilitation earns a farmer $150 a year. Gilvesy seeded 70 acres of marginal land to tallgrass prairie and gets $75 an acre because he can turn his cattle loose in mid-summer once foxes, birds and other wildlife have finished nesting. In all, 110 farmers have put about 800 acres into the program (for a video and detailed project descriptions, see norfolkalus.com).
But many participants are finding unexpected bonuses from environmental stewardship.
One of Gilvesy’s projects protects a coldwater stream running through a ravine behind his home. He’s taken hundreds of visitors to see the tributary of the Little Otter Creek, which empties into Lake Erie.
“I tell people who come here from Toronto, you’ll be drinking this water in a while,” says Gilvesy.
He’s crisscrossed the country promoting ALUS, which includes talking about things such as carbon sequestration (an acre of deep-rooted tallgrass prairie can hold nearly two tonnes of carbon). But he’s learned the program is most powerful when someone gazes into clear water or at longhorns chowing down in a pasture of six-foot-high tallgrass.
“We’ve found people don’t ‘get’ carbon because they can’t see it, smell it, or taste it. But when you talk about the water they drink, and protecting tallgrass prairie and Carolinian forest, they sure get that.”
And that has a direct business impact for Gilvesy who charges a premium price for his meat.
“We’re adding value to the product from our farm and consumers are increasingly looking for these sorts of things.”
Gilvesy points to another project participant who gets well-above-normal squash yields because he’s established a habitat for native bees.
“Other growers say they’ve never seen such good pollination,” says Gilvesy. “Instead of paying a pollinator to bring in bees, he’s getting paid for ALUS and he’s getting a benefit for his crop. That’s when things get really cool.”
Caring for the environment isn’t making Norfolk farmers rich, says Gilvesy.
But they have discovered it pays off in surprising ways.