Pearl Gregor was on the phone the instant she read about ALUS Canada in her county newspaper.
“When I heard about ALUS, it was automatic — I had to do it,” said the New Sarepta-area cattle farmer.
“We’ve lost so much of the Alberta wetlands. As farmers, we need water, so we need ALUS.”
ALUS (short for Alternative Land Use Services and pronounced ‘Alice’) compensates farmers and ranchers for providing ecosystem services on their land by contributing to up-front project costs and small annual payments. Common projects include improving riparian areas, maintaining native grasslands, and establishing wildlife habitats.
In Gregor’s case, it meant fencing off her wetlands and providing an alternative watering source for her small herd.
“People talk about the environment, but they very seldom do anything,” said Gregor, who manages her 240-acre farm with help from her son.
“ALUS means I’ve got a little bit of wetland, and anyone else who joins might have a little bit of wetland. It just makes sense.”
After launching in 2006 in Manitoba, ALUS came to Alberta in 2010 through a pilot project in the County of Vermilion River, before spreading to Parkland County in 2012 and Red Deer County in 2013. Today, there are 11 counties in Alberta that support ALUS programs, including the counties of Wetaskiwin and Leduc, where Gregor farms.
Gregor’s wetlands fencing was the first ALUS project completed in the region. Today, more than 300 acres are enrolled in the area.
“It’s a win-win program,” said Kim Barkwell, sustainable agriculture program manager for the County of Wetaskiwin and Leduc County.
“Greater society benefits from nature on the landscape, and most producers have some marginal areas on their land that they could enhance. It’s a program that just benefits everyone.”
In many cases, farmers already have some ecosystem services on their land and don’t realize it, said Barkwell. ALUS is a way to recognize the work that’s already being done, while also encouraging additional enhancements to the land.
“ALUS is an excellent solution provider,” said Barkwell. “It’s a way to have both nature and productivity on your farm and get rewarded for it.”
On Gregor’s farm, the wetlands have already started to rebound in the two years since the fence was installed. Willows are growing again, water levels are up, wildflowers have spread, and ducks are back in their natural habitat.
“You can already tell the difference it’s made in allowing the vegetation to come back,” said Barkwell. “It doesn’t take long for nature to do its thing.”
Gregor drew on additional government funding to complete the project, Barkwell added. A Growing Forward 2 grant covered 70 per cent of the cost of the fencing, with the remaining 30 per cent being split between Gregor and ALUS. Gregor also receives a yearly per-acre payment for maintaining the wetlands (about $90 in her case).
Typically, though, project participants aren’t motivated by the annual payment, said Barkwell.
“It’s not about the money,” she said. “Our producers are appreciative of that cheque, but it’s not the only driver.”
For Gregor, the annual payment is a nice bonus, but she has a better reason for preserving her wetlands — water management.
“If you want to maximize production on your land, you’re going to need water,” said Gregor.
“Farmers need water. We have a vested interest in having a wetland that holds more moisture.”
As Gregor watches the ecosystem on her farm rebuild itself, she sees more and more the value in turning her marginal lands toward a different type of production.
“My 3.5 acres haven’t been taken out of production. That 3.5 acres are in production to support the environment,” she said.
“The wetlands are in the environment for a reason. The fact that we’ve paved over 80 per cent of them does not bode well for our future.
“What will be left of this province in 100 years if we don’t take care of them?”
This project may seem like a drop in the bucket, but every little bit helps, she added.
“My project is 3.5 acres, which is minuscule, but I’ve only got 240 acres of land,” said Gregor.
“If everybody did one per cent of their own land, it would be quite a bit in the long run.
“We’ve got to think of the big picture. I’m just doing what I can.”