Award-winner values relationships in land preservation


Improving the environment or building farming’s reputation among consumers might be possible incentives for getting involved with farmland conservation efforts, but for St-Isidore’s Marc Bercier it’s relationships.

Bercier was the winner of this year’s $10,000 Dave Reid Award from Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) Canada. He’s been involved in ALUS projects for eight years.

Why it matters: There are increasingly diverse types of farmers involved in Alternative Land Use Services projects.

The Dave Reid award recognizes an ALUS participant who is an “excellent steward of the land and who (has) done outstanding and innovative work in producing ecological services.”

The Weston Family Ecosystem Innovation Award, of equal value, was awarded the same day to Dr. Amy Newman, associate professor in the University of Guelph’s Department of Integrative Biology.

Bercier, who serves on ALUS Canada’s Partnership Advisory Committee, has long been a leader in Ontario’s seed sector, and this award cements his status as a leader in marginal land naturalization. 

Eight years ago he made a decision to convert a gully on a just-purchased farm he tobogganed on and ate wild strawberries from as a youth when it was owned by his uncle, to more vegetation. The area now includes about four kilometres of buffer strips, pollinator habitat, and venues for visiting schoolchildren studying outdoor activities and natural systems.

He insists average yields have increased on the 3,000 acres operated by La Ferme Agribec since embarking on land naturalization, thanks to increased pollinator presence and improved soil quality. Plus, “I don’t have the time or money for a cottage in the north. But I have, on the farm, a natural green space where I can relax, and be proud of it.”

Bercier’s first on-farm venture following graduation from Alfred College in the 1980s was a seed cleaning facility – a now much-expanded business that continues to this day. The farm on which he was raised, a dairy operation during his youth, was soon converted to specialized seed production.

In soybeans, Bercier joined forces with seven other producers to form Pro Seeds, a venture he divested several years later after realizing his views on biotechnology had diverged from the mainstream. From there, he moved on to specializing in hemp – a crop he says he introduced onto La Ferme Agriber in order to broaden the crop rotation. The farm is now home to two separate hemp-related seed businesses.

“I do think I’m successful in business,” he agreed. “But for me, I never talk about money. I talk about the vision.”

It may not be surprising, then, that when asked about ALUS, Bercier doesn’t mention that the fact the organization’s role is to hand over money to farm landowners who convert cropland into such uses as wetlands, riparian zones, or native tall-grass prairie buffers.

Since first rejecting the recommendation of his farm drainage contractor eight years ago, and instead deciding to transform the gully on what had once been his uncle’s farm into an environmental preserve, he says the people he has encountered have made it all worthwhile.

He has met farmers “who don’t judge” him as a landowner collaborating with a conservation authority. And, just as importantly, he has met non-farmers “who don’t judge me as a cash-cropper.” He may have a big sprayer, and big tractors, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t using high-tech innovations to limit the environmental impact of his tillage and pest control activities.

Bercier said opportunities to meet members of the Eastern Ontario region’s First Nations have been particularly rewarding. He recalls experiencing his first “land acknowledgement” at the commencement of a conference in Kemptville at which he was a guest speaker and meeting with First Nations representatives on the South Nation Conservation Authority.

“This summer, my holiday was to walk the South Nation trails and learn about the history of this area,” he said, adding he was certainly never told in school that the First Nations of his region were also farmers.

“When we talk about our farm, they learn from me. But I learn a lot from the First Nations.”

Bercier says he has repeatedly been surprised how quickly areas of less-than-productive farmland have been transformed into natural states. And he’s certain that “every farmer has a piece of land, even if it’s just a part of an acre, that’s impractical to farm.”

He loves spreading the word about ALUS, and the goals the program encapsulates. So he’s open to the possibilities of what to do with the $10,000 award. 

“I need help from people like you,” he insisted, to bring forward ideas he might be interested in supporting. Is it a community garden for people with limited income? Or subsidizing bus trips from agricultural colleges to ALUS sites? Or maybe even a start-up business providing chemical-free lawn care and seeding lawns to drought-resistant and slow-growing species that don’t require watering and only need limited mowing?

If he likes the idea enough, Bercier says, he might even throw in his matching $10,000 – especially if it’s a young person or family.

“Because this is the generation that really needs to help us change the mentality of the way we farm.”

A runner-up Dave Reid prize of $1,500 was handed to Lambton County ALUS participants Mary Ellen and John King.