Conservation program has lots of love — but not as much money

[UPDATED: April 20, 2019] An innovative ecosystem services program has grown at “lightning pace” in Alberta over the past three years — but future growth could be limited if ALUS Canada can’t attract additional funds.

Christine Campbell.
photo: Supplied

“We have a waiting list of new communities that would like to join the program, but right now our largest barrier is getting funding established for those new communities,” said Christine Campbell, the organization’s hub manager for Western Canada.

ALUS (pronounced Alice and short for Alternative Land Use Services) is a national program that compensates farmers and ranchers for environmental enhancements on their land, both through the upfront costs of the project and the ongoing maintenance of the land.

Originating in Manitoba, the program came to Alberta in 2010 as a pilot project in the County of Vermilion River, before spreading to Parkland and Red Deer counties. Today, there are 12 counties in Alberta that support ALUS programs, including two that came on board in the last year.

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*“That growth has been made possible by funders such as Alberta philanthropist David Bissett (who donated $500,000 in 2017) and The W. Garfield Weston Foundation (who gave $5 million in 2016).” That led to a spike in the number of participants in the program over the last year, said Campbell.

“It’s about double what we had at the end of 2017,” she said. “We’ve had lots of new farmers participating in the program. We’ve been very, very busy.”

Some are in communities with a long history of ALUS participation. In the County of Vermilion River, nearing its 10-year anniversary in the program and where the “low-hanging fruit” have already signed on, interest is building in a second wave of producers.

“People are inherently skeptical — they like to watch their neighbours and see that proof of concept,” said Campbell, adding people often think conservation projects might be at odds with their management practices.

“But now they’re seeing that ALUS is working with marginal lands and finding solutions that could improve their overall farm health — and they get paid for it. It’s really a no-lose situation.”

That buy-in is critical.

“Having a strong champion that really understands the value of their agricultural producers and sees them as solution providers on the landscape is important,” said Campbell. “You can have oodles of money and unlimited technical capacity, but if you don’t have that base philosophical support, you won’t gain any traction.”

But there aren’t oodles of money and hence the waiting list.

In 2017, the organization launched its New Acre initiative to target the corporate sector, by giving companies the opportunity to sponsor environmental projects on farms and ranches in participating communities. It attracted its first sponsor last year but it will need many more to meet the demand.

ALUS could expand to seven additional communities in Alberta alone over the next three years. But to do that, it needs at least $500,000 in additional funding every year, despite the fact that starting a program is “relatively inexpensive,” said Campbell.

Typically, a new program only has a handful of demonstration projects, and municipalities (which partner with ALUS) have both the personnel and technical expertise to get things going.

But that changes once the program becomes more established.

“We need to look at what happens a couple of years down the line once that program has really taken off and you have a lineup of producers who want to participate in the program,” she said. “That’s really where we have to plan for. We usually need to find funding in the neighbourhood of at least $75,000 per community per year to run an effective program.”

If funding continues to be in short supply, ALUS will need to focus on the communities it’s already partnered with.

“The risk is that we won’t grow as quickly as we’d like,” said Campbell. “The risk of waiting is that the passion and will within a community can disappear pretty quickly when the drivers behind it disappear.

“So if producers just get frustrated with waiting for funding, we may lose that opportunity to make those environmental improvements.”

*UPDATE: This article previously stated that Galen Weston was the ALUS donor when in actuality it was The W. Garfield Weston Foundation. Our apologies for any confusion this may have caused.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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