Farmer forgoes millions to preserve agricultural gift for Edmonton

Farmer Doug Visser is foregoing the potential for making millions of dollars in order to protect quality farmland and an old-growth forest from suburban growth while creating a permanent gift for Edmonton.

He’s arranged to place a conservation easement on the land and launched a fundraising campaign to cover the fees, pledging to match donations up to $70,000. The easement – registered and monitored by the Edmonton and Area Land Trust – would ensure the top quality farmland could never legally be used for anything beyond community-based agriculture.

“This is something the whole community of Edmonton can get excited about. It’s kind of a miracle,” said Raquel Feroe, a board member with the land trust.

“They’re willing to sacrifice millions of dollars to share this with the community,” she said, getting tears in her eyes Friday. “Just the generosity and the land ethic. The opportunity is here now and, if people get behind it, it’s going to happen.”

Visser’s 93 hectares are in Horse Hill, a farming neighbourhood within city limits that was given the go-ahead for suburban redevelopment four years ago. It’s also in the study area for a future provincial bridge. The conservation plan would add political pressure to avoid a bridge being pushed through.

The land includes 28 hectares of old growth forest in the river valley, land currently used for First Nations ceremonies and where rare medicinal plants are grown. Unlike most of the land in this stretch of the North Saskatchewan River, it was never mined for gravel.

The rest of the land is and will continue to be used for farming – for Riverbend Gardens, a market garden that supplies many of the city’s farmers markets; and for Lady Flower Gardens, a community garden that lets homeless or disadvantaged people experience growing and eating their own vegetables. The land owner works with 15 different local organizations including the Mustard Seed Community Support Centre.

The land is located where 195 Avenue hits the North Saskatchewan River.

If the money can be raised, this would be the Edmonton and Area Land Trust’s first agricultural easement, adding to the nine natural areas it manages around the city. The land trust studied the issue for two years before agreeing to take it on.

Executive director Pam Wight said the land trust will need at least $140,000 to start and likely more to cover the costs of the legal agreement, baseline ecology studies and create a management plan. They don’t have a final cost. They need to raise enough money so interest from a permanent endowment fund managed by the Edmonton Community Foundation can fund the annual monitoring plan in perpetuity. Donations go to that fund.

The group agreed to take on the project because quality agricultural land like this is becoming rare close to the city. Most has been sold to developers and this is 30 minutes from downtown.

“We need to have agricultural lands near and around us and not assume they can be found elsewhere,” Wight said, pointing to the good drainage, quality soil, south-facing slopes and connection to the river as particularly important. That’s in addition to the rare old-growth forest.

But it will be tough. Provincial law allows for conservation easements on agricultural land but gives no funding for them. If they don’t raise enough before taking on this parcel, it would put their whole program in jeopardy, she said. “Perpetuity is a very long time.”

Visser wrote The King’s University into his will, pledging to give them part of the land to manage when he dies. They will also be able to run programs for their environmental studies students — the social justice vision fits with the University’s Micah Centre.

For Visser, it’s a way to recognize the land doesn’t belong to him in the way Western society views ownership, he said. Rather, he’s called to be a steward of the gift he’s been given, and this move will ensure access to the land for future generations.

“We’re here by the grace of God,” added Clarence Visser, Doug’s 89-year-old father who supports the conservation easement. A Christian, he’s also been influenced by First Nations leaders holding ceremonies on the land.

“When you look at land the way the First Nations traditionally have looked at it, land belongs to the creator,” Clarence Visser said. “We felt the land should continually be available.”

Doug Visser’s old-growth forest and farmland total 230 acres, or 93 hectares. That compares to: