Is the idea of paying farmers for ‘ecological services’ finally ready for prime time?
The Manitoba government is winning praise for setting up a $52-million endowment fund to create a province-wide version of a program that pays farmers for stewardship efforts such as protecting riparian areas and habitat restoration.
The program will be based on ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services), an initiative created in Manitoba a couple of decades ago that has caught fire in Alberta since being introduced as a pilot project in the County of Vermilion River. It is now established in 12 counties.
Rimbey-area farmer Jason Lenz has been involved in ALUS Canada for the past two years and sees a real need for increased conservation funding in the province.
“Being a farmer, you always want to make sure you look after the land,” said Lenz, past chair of Alberta Barley.
“Being the ultimate environmentalists that we are, we want to make sure we’re doing our part to make sure the areas we live and farm in are healthy. There’s a lot of marginal land that could be improved upon in the province.”
Some of that government support already exists in Alberta, said Lenz, who has been part of the partnership advisory committee for Lacombe County’s ALUS program since it was formed in 2017.
“I know there’s been some really good work done already, but there’s still more to do.”
The new Manitoba program — called Growing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) — will be based on ALUS, which compensates farmers for providing ecosystem services on their land (both through the upfront costs of the project and the ongoing maintenance of the land). Along with riparian protection and habitat restoration, GROW will fund small-scale water retention projects, soil health improvement, shelterbelts and eco-buffers.
The endowment fund (to be managed by a long-established charitable foundation) is expected to generate about $2.5 million a year. A non-profit Crown corporation called the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation will oversee the program.
Manitoba’s move was hailed by Lara Ellis, ALUS Canada’s vice-president of policy and partnerships.
It represents the biggest buy-in from any province so far, she said.
“We are happy to work with the government of Manitoba and all of our other conservation partners in Manitoba around implementation and making sure that we’re all working as efficiently together as possible,” she said.
Even the National Farmers Union — not usually a fan of conservative governments — praised the move by Manitoba’s ruling Progressive Conservative Party.
“With more erratic weather, major storms, flood and drought affecting our profitability and way of life, we know how important it is to prevent climate change from getting worse,” said Ian Robson, the NFU’s regional co-ordinator in Manitoba. “The GROW program will help farmers invest in protecting the natural systems that keep carbon in the ground.”
However, Manitoba’s main farm group is waiting to see details, particularly whether the program will also mimic ALUS’s principle of having local groups adjust project criteria so they better address local conditions and the wishes of farmers in the area.
“If there are adequate funds and acceptance, I think that this is a good concept,” said Bill Campbell, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers. “I think that we’ve evolved into this from two decades ago where government, society and producers realized that there are benefits for this alternative land service.
“We just need to figure out how we’re going to compensate and acknowledge producers so they can be sustainable.”
Although his organization has been a long-standing supporter of ALUS (which had projects on about 1,800 acres in Manitoba last year), it was not consulted on the GROW program, he said, adding that farmer buy-in is critical.
“If we don’t engage the stakeholders or the producers and the landowners, it’s going to be an uphill battle,” said Campbell. “We just have to show that good practices are beneficial and hopefully everybody will want to climb on board and do what is right for the land, the producers and society.”
“Improving water quality and ecosystems for people downstream from your land has a trickle-down effect,” he said. “If you’re doing work on your own land and it improves your neighbour’s land, you’re doing your share in improving the overall land base in Alberta.”