‘The eyes of everybody are on us’: Canadian farmers look to be good stewards of the land

Sean LaBrie, the co-owner of Difficulty Ranch, is one of hundreds of ranchers and farmers who are participating in the ALUS program. Photo/Robert Scott

As rising temperatures and extreme weather have started to threaten the agricultural industry, Canadian farmers have been exploring what they can do to fight climate change.

For Sean LaBrie, that has meant fencing off 90 acres of his 800-acre ranch in Alberta for special conservation projects.

LaBrie is one of hundreds of farmers and ranchers across the country who are participating in the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program. A national charitable organization runs the program and pays farmers to devote a portion of their land for conservation efforts. These can include restoring wetlands and planting more trees to offset their carbon footprint.

“It’s letting people know who are removed from agriculture that we do care about our land as well as upstream properties from ours. We’re trying to take care of everybody along the way,” said LaBrie.

While the project means farmers are unable to use portions for production, ALUS looks to keep their operations financially viable through the payments.

Rancher Sean LaBrie has fenced off wetlands for the ALUS project. Photo/Sean LaBrie

A recent report conducted by the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry stressed the importance of such programs when it comes to climate change, as extreme weather is already having significant effects on farmers.

Over the last decade, farmers in the prairies have experienced record rainfall, flooding and droughts, the report said. Weather ranging from very dry conditions to tropical storms has caused problems for farmers in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia.

Fruit growers in British Columbia have reported that flooding has increased because of melting mountain snowpacks.

The report recommended that the federal government shield farmers from some of the costs they may face with carbon pricing. While agriculture is responsible for 10 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, one in eight people in Canada are employed in the industry, according to the report.

The committee also suggested that the government should fund and expand tools and programs, such as ALUS, that help farmers keep carbon in the ground.

“We need to feed our population, but we also need the ecosystems services that nature provides. We don’t have that much land to do all of these things,” says Christine Campbell, the ALUS hub manager for western Canada. “So we need to find a way to be working on the landscape and to allow the production of ecosystems services.”

The ALUS program started as a pilot project in Manitoba more than 10 years ago and has since grown to include more than 700 participants across six provinces.

Campbell said participating ranchers use fencing to stop livestock from grazing in sectioned off areas. This leads to less soil disruption and sequesters carbon, she said.

“There have been a number of studies that show different management practices particularly through livestock grazing can really help us to battle climate change,” she said.

Participating farmers say the program has not been onerous, and just takes a little bit of management.

Brian Rodger, an Albertan farmer, said that a lot of the land he has devoted to the project was not productive anyway and probably should have been set aside a long time ago.

Rodger’s farm, which sits about 40 minutes northeast of Calgary, is mostly a livestock operation, but he also farms some grain. He has devoted around 10 to 12 acres to the project.

“The eyes of everybody are on us. So we better be doing a good job of looking after the environment,” he said. “When a city person or an urban person drives by, it catches their eye to see that farmers are trying to work with the environment and look after it. Because ultimately they want their food produced in an environmentally friendly way.”