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Edmonton farmer battles to protect prime land from urban sprawl

In northeast Edmonton, fertile soil that in years past gave us carrots and cabbages and berries and beets is being shoved aside to make way for big box centres, roadways and acres of houses, all lined up like dominos. Some of that earth now sits in piles atop the naked land, awaiting an upturn in Alberta’s economy – a testimony to the vagaries of development.

Driving through this reshaped landscape to reach the home of Doug Visser, one in a handful of northeast landowners remaining steadfastly agricultural, I recall the first article I wrote upon moving to Edmonton in 1982. My assignment: the roll-out of a major annexation by the city that set the stage for paving over this very land. Some of Canada’s most productive.

Thirty-five years later, the bulldozers are advancing ever closer to Doug’s land. Nestled in a bend of the North Saskatchewan River, it’s a 236-acre (93-hectare) property that boasts a thriving market garden, a community garden, an old-growth forest, a wooded area used for First Nations ceremonies, a yurt and more. In cooperation with the Edmonton and Area Land Trust (EALT), he is mounting a campaign to attach a conservation easement to the title in hope of protecting the property from development not only now, but generations into the future.

Local media coverage of the campaign has highlighted the loss in land value likely to result from attaching an easement, but Doug prefers to focus on the value to be gained by preserving the land, which he views as a trust from Creator God. Recalling the biblical Jubilee, when property was redistributed as an instrument of justice, he says, “We’re here for just a moment in time, and the land has an identity that’s beyond ourselves. Once you pave it over, it affects generations into the future.”

Warding off development
Doug Visser has invited two others to his home today: his father Clarence Visser and uncle Jim Visser. The brothers grew up on a nearby homestead and farmed for decades along this stretch of what has become 195 Avenue NE. Although much of their land has passed to succeeding generations, they continue to care passionately for this corner of creation, whose proximity to the North Saskatchewan River results in not only first-class soil but an extended growing season and ample water for irrigation.

In a sunny living room overlooking the forest, Jim recalls addressing a parade of planning boards and councils over the decades, drawing on soil science and his own experience to make the case that this land must be stewarded.

Doug Visser at a public land meeting.
Aaron & Janelle Herbert and children Evie, Layne and Carly.

Despite some wins (including a Local Authorities Board recommendation to exclude land along 195 Avenue from annexation), and despite a groundswell of support (evidenced by overflowing council chambers during debates about the land), momentum has rolled inexorably toward development. Even so, decades of persistent advocacy raised awareness about the need for agricultural land in and near urban centres, preparing the ground for fresh, Edmonton’s first-ever Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy – and helping to build an appetite for a land trust.

Clarence, in turn, recalls how, three years after being annexed to the city, he and his wife Jennie placed a restrictive covenant on the very land we’re sitting on today, hoping against hope to ward off development. A few years later, following a life-changing visit to Sierra Leone that sent them home with what Clarence terms “reverse culture shock,” they gifted the land to Christian Stewardship Services (CSS). “We didn’t know if any of our children would want to take over the farm,” Clarence recalls. “And we decided we didn’t want to be millionaires.” While continuing to farm the property, they also shared its beauty with First Nations leaders, learning more from them about land as a shared resource.

Doug and his late wife Evelyn later began Riverbend Gardens on this land, which they bought back from CSS. The market garden continues to thrive under the care of their daughter Janelle and her husband Aaron Herbert. Meanwhile, Doug and his partner Kelly Mills run Lady Flower Gardens on another part of the property, connecting hundreds of inner city residents, students, seniors and others with the land while giving produce to Edmonton’s Food Bank and other people in need.

“The land has been really good to us,” Doug says. “It has given a way of life that’s economically viable now to the third generation. The challenges of keeping it in agriculture are real, but we’ve proven that viability. And Aaron and Janelle are, too.”

Rare and essential spaces
Like his parents before him, Doug is determined to use every possible avenue to continue the farm’s agricultural uses while preserving its old-growth forest and expanding connections with First Nations peoples. He also intends to deed a portion to The King’s University for teaching and research in his will.

“We see tremendous value in protecting the Visser lands,” says EALT Executive Director Pam Wight. She points in particular to the 75-acre (30-hectare) old growth forest, which has never been gravel mined or logged. Extending down to the North Saskatchewan River and onto adjacent lands, the forest forms part of an essential wildlife corridor while providing the soft surfaces needed to mitigate flooding and erosion. What’s more, the forest, river and farm hold potential to play an expanding role in eco-tourism, offering soul-sustaining green spaces as well as nutritious produce just minutes away from urban bustle.

Even so, Wight adds, the EALT must proceed with caution. Although the land trust already stewards nine natural areas in the capital region, this would be its first property primarily devoted to agriculture. And although the Alberta Land Stewardship Act added agriculture as a reason for creating a conservation easement in 2008, neither the provincial nor the federal government provides financial incentives for conserving cultivated agricultural land. Donors of ecologically significant natural areas, by contrast, receive a federal tax credit worth the total value of donation, plus provincial support if the land furthers Alberta’s biodiversity priorities. It’s a discrepancy that demands attention, she says: “If agriculture is valuable, as the province has said, why wouldn’t there be some program to assist the conservation of agricultural land?” In the meantime, she adds, “We cannot let any one land securement jeopardize our ability to steward all the lands in our care in perpetuity.”

Riverbend workers in the fields this spring.

In that context, Doug Visser and a growing number of supporters are campaigning to raise $140,000 within a year toward an endowment fund to create and sustain this conservation easement – with Doug matching donations up to $70,000. (The EALT hopes to obtain additional public grants for preserving the forest as a natural area.) The campaign went public in March and raised $35,000 in just three weeks. “It’s really going viral,” Doug says.

A bridge too near
Public support may prove especially important in the face of yet another threat to the land: a bridge. The province and area municipalities have agreed that a new river crossing will eventually be needed in northeast Edmonton, and Doug Visser’s land sits squarely on the route shown in City of Edmonton plans for the area. Although the bridge isn’t scheduled to be built for at least 25 years, the process of finalizing that route has already begun. And like the annexation that set the stage for today, this line on a map has the power to forever erase more of the rich soil that prompted earlier generations to settle here.

Farmers whose land is threatened by the bridge, including Janelle and Aaron Herbert of Riverbend Gardens, advocate a river crossing slightly upstream from 195 Avenue, passing through a mined-out gravel pit while leaving more farmland intact. Even Jim Visser, who lives along that route, believes it’s the best option. If a bridge really is needed in a carbon-reduced future, he says, “We’re kind of hoping it takes my house out.”

While united in advocating that any river crossing respect the significance of prime agricultural land, Janelle Herbert and her husband are choosing not to support her father’s campaign for a conservation easement – at least not until it’s clear whether the bridge will replace their market gardens. Besides believing they should focus now on advocating for best placement of the river crossing, Janelle says, they fear an easement would devalue the property without protecting it from use as a bridge, making Riverbend Gardens even more vulnerable to expropriation.

Doug, on the other hand, believes the awareness raised by campaigning for a conservation easement will speak volumes to the team studying where to put the bridge – and to their political masters.

“This is powerful because it engages the public,” he says. “I’m hopeful now that more and more people will say, ‘This is our land; this is a special place. Wait a minute! We want to keep that land.’”


Avenues for action
If you’re moved to support the work being done to preserve prime agricultural land in northeast Edmonton, here are some things you can do. Click on ladyflowergardens.com for details.
     Donate to the conservation easement campaign. Online at ladyflowergardens.com/ealt or by cheque written to the Edmonton Community Foundation (memo line: EALT Agricultural Fund) and sent to 9910 103 Street NW, Edmonton AB T5K 2V7.
     Support the Riverlands Benefit Concert. Saturday, June 10 in the yurt, featuring Joe Nolan (a member of the Visser family), Ann Vriend and Amy van Keeken. Tickets via Eventbrite. “Eventbrite” art by Vicky Van Andel for silent auction at June 10 fundraiser is pictured above.
     Speak up about the northeast Edmonton river crossing. Online surveys at Edmonton.ca/northeastrivercrossing; contact info. for elected officials at riverbendgardens.ca/let-your-voice-be-heard-for-ag-land-preservation/.
     Organize a group harvest. Round up 10 people, donate $200 or more to the EALT Agricultural Legacy Fund and gather fresh veggies from Lady Flower Gardens for yourself and for Edmonton’s Food Bank this summer.



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