Bryan shifts mindsets from restrictive ‘protectionism’ to ‘creative production’ of ecosystem services through the ALUS model that engages farmers in new and unique roles as land stewards for climate adaptation. The result is the production of nature-based solutions in Canada and the creation of a dynamic marketplace which incentivises participation of all.
The New Idea
Bryan is shifting the conservationist paradigm on the working landscape from one of protection and preservation to that of productivity and growth. He identifies private landowners, particularly agricultural producers and farmers, and incentivises them to not just maintain existing ecologically valuable parts of their land, but actively produce new ecosystem services using the marginal, uneconomical, and ecologically valuable parts of their land. In this way, Bryan increases the acres used to improve carbon sequestration, reduce greenhouse gases (GHG), and restore natural capital like wetlands and forests. He leads the ALUS program, a principles based program created for this exact purpose.
ALUS is unique because it offers a new role for agricultural producers and farmers to play in producing natural capital. The farmer-centric approach trusts the farmer to initiate and maintain localized biodiversity projects on their land by inviting them to participate in a process to determine how they want to work their land for conservation projects. Through localized partnership advisory committees (PACs), ALUS helps farmers consolidate and amplify their impact from a farm to the community level. PACs are comprised of farmers, local conservation groups, and local governments that drive customized support and engagement for farmers. In doing so, PACs become the driver for community run climate adaptation projects. Bryan has built value for these climate mitigating outcomes by bundling them as a comprehensive credit that includes carbon, water and biodiversity—what Bryan refers to as the “Cadillac of Carbon.” Companies and governments invest in these projects as part of their own Environment-Social-Governance (ESG) and GHG reduction goals, which builds the market for these ecosystem services. Credits are named New Acres and are packaged and sold by area of land conserved, and list the environmental benefits, such as carbon sequestered or water filtered, in addition to the carbon that is offset. Investments flow back to farmers, who are paid per-acre for the projects they choose to implement, offering them a new income generating stream.
This cyclical value-chain becomes the modality to create a reliable marketplace for agricultural producers to dedicate more of their private land acres to ecological services needed in the fight against climate change because they receive market signals to do so. The marketplace is constantly attracting new and valuable stakeholders, including corporations, governments and municipalities. Bryan’s new idea has emerged to allow the goal of reducing greenhouse gases and improving carbon sequestration to engage farmers, communities, companies, and ultimately, consumers, a full ‘farm-to-table’ type journey of change.
Much of Canada’s ecologically valuable land and important natural habitats reside within privately held landscapes, primarily due to a long history of colonization, and allocation of land for agricultural, industrial, and urban uses. This means that all efforts at conservation of valuable ecology by necessity will need to involve private landowners. To date, policies and procedures utilized by the government and conservation experts have focused their efforts to either incentivize landowners to let go of these land-acres, or to protect existing ecology on their land, at the risk of facing fines and penalties if they didn’t comply. For instance, in Ontario, the Species-At Risk Act can disincentivize farm stewardship. For example, when an at-risk species moves on to farmland, it immediately becomes subject to a regulatory regime which restricts the farmers’ use of their land. These habitat protection regulations, which seeks to prohibit activity, as opposed to enabling future productivity, is a core reason for farmers to avoid alerting authorities when they start hosting such at-risk species on their lands. This legislation is an example of how farmers can feel threatened and excludes them from climate-related conversations and strategies.
Regulations like the Species At-Risk Act are up against farmers facing challenges emerging from deep fractures between agriculture, climate change, and the economic climate in Canada. Much of farmland is owned by farmers, who in the quest to hand down legacy for their sons and daughters, continue borrowing to further invest in new property. As climate change continues to cause unpredictable weather patterns, more and more farms find themselves facing higher costs and lower and unpredictable yields. While many farmers are aware that they can build farm resilience through the production of natural capital, there remains a need for a mechanism that will de-risk the shift, en-masse.
At the macro level, there is a growing recognition for further investment to support the act of protecting and growing the number of acres devoted to ecosystem services. In 2020, the Canadian government set up an unprecedented CAD 185M fund to support nature-based solutions implemented through farmers. Similarly, there is a burgeoning number of carbon-funds, that companies and individuals invest in, to incentivise carbon offsetting. However, even if all the money from the CAD 185M fund is invested directly in farmers, it will still be less than the CAD 205M per year needed for farmers to adopt and implement climate friendly practices (estimated by the Farmers for Climate Solutions, a national advocacy body). Carbon funds are notoriously inefficient, with much of the funding disappearing in costly verification processes. For farmers, the promise of government and corporate support feels empty when they see the dollars disappear into these processes run by intermediaries. Farmers feel isolated, victimized, and carry the guilt of climate change.
Bryan started his journey in 1993, when government disincentives and personal interest saw him begin the transition of his tobacco farm to becoming a producer of sustainable livestock. As he made this shift, he saw the positive consequences of moving away from traditional farm practices and investing in ecosystem services. Not only did his farm thrive, but also the business, as Bryan had discovered a niche in the market. Bryan realized that this was mainly because he had created the conditions on the farm for his cattle to fit the environment, not changing the environment to fit the cattle.
In 2006, when Bryan discovered Alternative Land Use Solutions (ALUS), it was still a highly theoretical concept, focused on building a stewardship council, and based on eight principles. ALUS was incubated then by Delta Waterfowl Foundation. Bryan joined and quickly evolved the concept from a stewardship council to a community council, with strong farmer representation. Bryan also became the voice of ALUS to the farmer community, travelling across the country and reaching out to farmers to participate in the pilots that were springing up.
The ALUS model built by Bryan ensures that farmers embark on an irreversible journey towards intrinsically valuing and producing ecosystem services given their skill sets and motivations to steward productive farms. Farmers are invited, on a voluntary basis, to repurpose the marginal, ecologically viable, and uneconomical parts of their land to create pollinator habitats, preserve wetlands, shelterbelts, wildlife habitats, and clean streams. For every acre of land, they dedicate to these projects, they receive annual payments from ALUS.
Further, ALUS had conceptualised support to participant farmers through a stewardship council. Bryan was instrumental in re-imagining this council to become the Partnership Advisory Committees (PAC) that it is today. PACs make the decisions on payment amounts, viability of an ecosystem project, and provides the technical support to farmers to implement ecosystem services. PACs are farmer driven (50% of the PAC are farmers), with other members drawn from local government, local or national conservation organizations, and ALUS staff, with farmers having veto-power. ALUS sets up the PACs, and supports them with training, funding, education, networking, and technical support.
As Bryan engaged with the model, he understood that farmer motivation lies in being producers, as well as protectors. As Chairperson of the first, largest, and most successful PAC, he had already geared payments to support additional services produced on the land, outside of the existing ecological features. His participation through the PAC had begun supporting new and innovative natural infrastructures across farms including natural property management approaches and boundary formations. Bryan collaborated with ALUS in the early years to develop the national guidelines through which ALUS began replicating itself across the country through the creation of new PACs. This is because Bryan sees the PACs as the critical node to ensure farmer community participation and leadership. PACs are consulted for all big ALUS policy changes and used for problem-solving. The PACs bear fiduciary responsibility for the projects, and support mapping, data collection, and project management. PACs drive farmer participation and are also excellent fundraising engines of their own. Bryan ensured that new PACs had equal power and supports them through a service cooperative approach. In 2020, PACs raised 40% of ALUS’ annual budget through local fundraising, showing the deep trust and credibility they entail.
Bryan’s approach recognizes that the farmer is the first, and key, decision-maker on what project they want to implement and how much land they want to dedicate to it. The initial one-year term allows the farmer to determine how they want to engage. Similarly, members of the PAC remain engaged for a one-year term. Both contracts are renewable annually, and participants can determine if they want to engage longer term after the first year. In 2021, Bryan saw 76% farmers staying on after the first year. The pace is slow, and this allows for farmers to engage on their own terms to learn with time that they indeed are in the driver’s seat. This approach is proving successful in building trust. Between 2016-2021, ALUS has seen consistent growth, from farmer to farmer, community to community, and much of this success can be traced back to farmers inviting their neighbours and friends, and more than 27+ PACs mushrooming around the country.
In 2016, Bryan became the CEO of ALUS. Having demonstrated the ability and willingness of farmers and communities to invest in, produce, and sustain nature-based solutions, Bryan turned his energy to building a national network of funders to increase capital flowing to farmers. His goal was to create a biodiversity-bundled carbon credit – and to do so, he introduced the New Acre Project. In the last five years, ALUS has bought on 30 additional partners via the New Acres Project, including Cargill, A&W, Danone, RBC and TD Bank. For each ‘acre of outcome’ that companies invest in, they can reflect it as part of their own sustainability goals and engage employees. This is the first step that Bryan is taking towards building a biodiversity bundled credit, starting with corporate sponsorship in the short term to build a consumer base. Going forward, he aims to target local and small businesses in an emission offset opportunity, followed by certification for positive environmental contributions. Companies can directly track outcomes and impact, preventing greenwashing to build accountability. Recognizing the challenge of verification, and the hesitancy thereby to invest in carbon offsets. Bryan has developed a cost-effective verification methodology, that draws from insurance tactics. As opposed to verifying each and every farm, he uses random sampling to be able to demonstrate outcomes, one that is proving effective, and providing important reassurance for companies and consumers investing in the carbon credit.
In parallel, Bryan is also providing value for a range of local, provincial, and national government entities to partner with, and invest in the model. He has been strategic in choice of partner, reaching out to Ministries of Transport, and Climate, and not the obvious Agriculture departments. Bryan is discovering that the service has applications to a range of problem-statements faced by different local and provincial departments. He has partnered with officials from the Ministries of Transport who discovered that their roads were being washed away because of climate change. He has partnered with municipalities because they want to make their cities more liveable. Municipalities have raised CAD 450,000 in 2020-21 to implement ALUS-like programs in their own communities.
Bryan’s leadership shifted ALUS from a small funder-incubated organisation, incentivizing farmers to protect ecosystem services, to one that gives real choice, power, and market opportunity for farmers to reposition their role to be on the front lines of climate mitigation – farmers producing ecosystems to address an immense array of problems. This is a result of his drive to constantly find value for ecosystem outcomes and make them available to a range of stakeholders. This is key to his scaling strategy – anyone who comes into contact with ALUS feels valued and trusted, and with ability to contribute tangibly to improve outcomes. Bryan continues to evolve different modalities to work with scale partners: matching government investments, tapping into existing development funds from the Canadian government, as well as through the company sponsorships from the New Acre Project to offset carbon from supply chains.
The impact speaks for itself. From 2015, Bryan grew ALUS from 8 communities in 3 provinces to 31 communities in 6 provinces in Southern Canada, which has suffered the largest loss of habitat. In 2020, ALUS reached 1100 farmers, cultivating more than 32,100 acres to produce cleaner air, cleaner water, and more wildlife habitat. ALUS reported 26,318 acres of wetland-related ecosystems, 24,572 acres of pollinator habitats, and 6082 acres reforested with native shrubs and trees and in 2021, has disbursed over $6 million, in funding through the ALUS communities. ALUS communities raised an additional $4 million from local sources, multiplying this impact.
A third-generation tobacco farmer, Bryan started the transition of his tobacco farm to cattle farming in 1993. In his quest to support his cattle effectively, Bryan took on a project to restore native tall grass prairie on his ranch in Norfolk County, Ontario. This tall grass project began to support grassland birds like the meadowlark, the endangered American badger, and it became home to a suite of native pollinators. Bryan realized he could shift to being a grass-based beef operation, as the tall grass was drought tolerant, and became part of drought season feed for cattle. This initial foray enabled him to slowly build a thriving sustainable livestock ranch, the Y.U. Ranch. Y.U. Ranch built a name for itself even prior to the organic food movement. Bryan was able to attract clientele and build a thriving business out of 250 acres of his 350-acre farm. The other hundred acres included trails, a cold-water stream for trout, and other conditions ideal for cattle to thrive. As Bryan started getting recognition for his ranch, Bryan reconnected with his roots at the Ivey Business School, where he had studied business. He collaborated with the faculty at the school to write up two case studies about the ranch. The case studies took off, and is now taught in 19 countries, through 100 universities. Bryan continues to guest lecture at business schools in and around Ontario, with the goal to seed sustainability where business is taught.
Bryan’s approach to farming was seeded very early on, at his grandfather’s knee. His grandfather’s belief was “If you are only farming, you are not taking full advantage of your time.” This reinforced to Bryan early on the belief that farmers have more potential to their community than tilling the land. After Bryan finished university, he started a consulting firm in the 1980s, with the intention of helping farmers facing bankruptcy.
When Bryan met Dave Reid, one of the drafters of the ALUS concept, at a Christmas dinner in 2005, he approached the meeting with skepticism. At that point, Dave was the stewardship coordinator with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources., Dave described to him his vision of farmers being paid for their stewardship of natural resources on their land. Bryan was hooked. He saw the opportunity to enable more farmers on a similar journey as his, and to leave a legacy wider than what he could achieve on his own farm. Through ALUS, not only does Bryan get to use his business acumen to bring stakeholders to the table, but he is also able to translate the opportunity for farmers to be critical actors in the fight against climate change. As Bryan puts it, “ALUS opens the door to people to see a new world. Every farmer will read the newspaper differently. They will see themselves as actors to solving climate change.” At 62 years old in 2021, Bryan shows no signs of stopping, and has deep commitment to his vision.