Bryan Gilvesy
Ashoka Fellow since 2023   |   Canada

Bryan Gilvesy

By reimagining farming as land stewardship and connecting it to a larger ecosystem committed to climate action, Bryan cultivates pride amongst farmers and catalyzes them to build social capital that…
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This description of Bryan Gilvesy's work was prepared when Bryan Gilvesy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.


By reimagining farming as land stewardship and connecting it to a larger ecosystem committed to climate action, Bryan cultivates pride amongst farmers and catalyzes them to build social capital that bridges the rural-urban divide.

The New Idea

Bryan is shifting the conservationist paradigm away from protection and preservation of nature and toward productivity and growth. He catalyzes farmers and ranchers not just to maintain existing ecologically valuable parts of their land but also to produce new ecosystem services provided by nature such as pollinator habitats, wetlands, and tall grass prairies on land that is marginal, unused or uneconomical. And he makes this work profitable for farmers and ranchers by engaging not only government and citizen sector funders but also businesses keen to meet their own Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals. He has therefore created a new kind of place-based marketplace for collaborative climate solutions.

But equally importantly, by motivating farmers to return to their roots as land stewards, Bryan challenges the conventional belief that farmers accelerate environmental decline through singular focus on high crop yields. He crafts a new narrative about who farmers are and how they contribute, renewing a sense of pride in their work and the entrepreneurial spirit that underpins it. He also builds a community of producers and stewards that serves as proof of concept for other farmers who may be hesitant to act. De-risking that first big step to a new approach builds a bridge to climate action and new revenue streams. It also cultivates social capital with those in the broader ecosystem whom farmers might otherwise doubt the intentions of and avoid. This lessens the isolation that farmers too often experience and demonstrates for younger people in rural communities the contributions that farming can make to shared conservation priorities.

ALUS program delivery is rooted in community, and the growth of participating ALUS communities across six Canadian provinces and most recently to two US states means more than 1,600 farmers and ranchers are now generating new ecosystem services for an emerging market. They are also building social capital with government officials, conservation activists, technical advisers, Indigenous knowledge holders, local funders and corporate representatives. Bryan’s own partners in academia and the innovation sector then verify the impact of farmers’ climate solutions, providing an open-sourced blueprint for others to take the leap and join the ALUS movement.

The Problem

Much of Canada’s ecologically valuable land is privately held due to a long history of colonization and allocation of land for agricultural, industrial, and urban use. Efforts at conservation therefore rely largely on private landowners. Policies used by the government and conservation experts have focused on incentivizing landowners to protect or let go of ecologically valuable land. Punitive measures built into conservationist legislation such as the Species At-Risk Act (SARA) leave farmers feeling threatened and reinforce the false narrative that farmers and ranchers mostly pollute. And as climate change continues to cause extreme weather patterns, more and more farmers find themselves facing higher costs and unpredictable crop yields, leaving many in debt. Farmers are generally aware of how building natural capital can build farm resilience, but the lack of a mechanism to facilitate this in ways that are profitable for farmers stymies a marked shift.

Moreover, farmers are motivated by what they know they can produce and get paid well for to sustain their businesses. This has resulted in some reliance on high-input, high-emissions farming practices that rely on pesticides, plastics, and other damaging products. Government and other conservation initiatives have responded by devising Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes to incentivize farmers to both move away from harmful practice and maintain ecosystem services on their land. Yet these schemes can be paternalistic and fail to account for farmer motivation and skill, and they mostly engage farmers in protecting what currently exists. There is little incentive to build new natural capital. This fundamental flaw assumes that the value starts and stops on the land, and that humans prioritize protection from the sidelines, rather than entrepreneurial creation of a more integrated ecosystem to build greater sustainability. 

In 2020, the Canadian government set up an unprecedented CAD$185M (US$136M) fund to support farmer-implemented nature-based solutions. But even if this money was invested directly in farmers, it would still be less than CAD$205 (US$151) per farmer per year. And many farmers are suspicious of government programs that tend to treat them as wards, not problem solvers. The number of carbon funds for investment from companies and individuals, meanwhile, has grown. Carbon funds are notoriously inefficient, though, with much of the funding absorbed by middlemen and costly verification processes. For farmers, the promise of government and corporate support feels empty, with many of them still feeling isolated and shamed as part of the problem. 

The Strategy

The original ALUS model motivated agricultural producers to produce natural capital on their land. Bryan’s leadership shifted it from a small funder-incubated organization, incentivizing farmers to produce ecosystem services, to one that gives real choice, power and market opportunity for farmers and ranchers to reposition their role to be on the front lines in the fight against climate change. It also ensures that companies that help to fund this work are given in return bundled biodiversity credits to meet their corporate sustainability goals. Bryan sustains and scales this new cross-sector climate solutions network in three ways. First is a place-based process for recruiting and kickstarting farmer- and rancher-initiated projects that is aligned with local conservation priorities. Second is building a nationwide network of funders to ensure capital flow to farmers and ranchers and offering bundled biodiversity credits to companies in return. And third is strengthening partnerships with local and federal government agencies to influence their own practices.

ALUS originally conceptualized support to participant farmers through a stewardship council. Bryan reimagined it to become what he now calls Partnership Advisory Committees, a governance unit within each community. These support farmers and ranchers with training, funding, education, networking, and technical support. Each committee makes decisions on the viability of a proposed ecosystem project and payment amounts. It also provides technical support. They are farmer- and rancher-driven (they make up at least 50% of each committee), with other members drawn from government, conservation organizations, regional knowledge holders, funders and ALUS staff. Each Committee decides how much land area it will cover, and in its first year, demonstration farms are set up so that people can join tours to learn more when they are ready. Projects that follow are reviewed and funded annually.

Bryan’s approach emphasizes the farmer as the first decision-maker on a project and the amount of land needed to implement it. The initial 5-year funding approved by a Partnership Advisory Committee allows the farmer to decide how they want to engage, and farmer contracts are renewable. In 2021, Bryan saw that 76% farmers returned after their first year to do a second project. He says it is common amongst farmers to be wary of new initiatives like ALUS, given their long-held suspicion of government or outsiders’ programs that could limit their production and profit-making. Bryan’s approach takes this context into account and has proven successful in building trust, in no small part because farmers and ranchers are at each Committee’s core. ALUS has seen consistent growth as a result. Some 38 Partnership Advisory Committees are now active across six provinces – 12 more than when Bryan attended the virtual panel in July 2021. 32 are consulted about ALUS policy changes nationally. They support local mapping, data collection, and project management. They drive farmer participation and are excellent fundraising engines of their own. And these Committees have raised 40% of ALUS’ annual budget through local fundraising, showing the deep trust and credibility they have with community stakeholders.  

Bryan’s second strategy is growing a national network of funders who can increase capital flowing to farmers. In the last five years alone, he has brought on more than 30 private-sector partners such as Cargill, General Mills, A&W, Danone, Royal Bank of Canada and TD Bank. And by branding the corporate effort as “the New Acre Project,” he has created a means by which private sector support for farmer-led ecosystem services can be reflected tangibly. For each ‘acre of outcome’ a company invests in, it receives a bundled biodiversity credit aligned to the new natural capital that farmers’ projects are building. This work is now at an inflection point, given a recent CAD$5M (US$3.7M) grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada to develop a platform for the quantification of carbon sequestered and offset by farmer projects. Cargill and Bruce Power will co-create the platform. And the federal government is taking notice. At the time of writing (early March 2023), Bryan and colleagues are attending meetings with government officials from four national departments to discuss the new platform and how its carbon quantification as a subset of the biodiversity bundles improves on current offsetting practices. Bryan expects that ALUS will be able to start issuing its own carbon credits as a token attached to the New Acre in the next 18 months.

Bryan builds on the confidence amongst private funders by drawing on insurance sector best practice to create an inventive new way to verify projects continue to exist. Rather than visit each farm, which would demand a great deal of time and resources, Bryan uses a ‘random sampling’ approach to ensure that farmers’ projects are still active. Partners in academia and the innovation sector help to verify findings. This certification process has earned the confidence of existing corporate partners who are willing to pay more than conventional carbon offsets per ton because the projects’ impact is both environmental and social. ALUS has also started to explore the use of topography data gathered from satellites and AI to calculate how much carbon is likely sequestered by the trees and grassland on a given farmer’s land. This work builds upon project verification by interpreting the ecosystem services produced on project sites.

Bryan provides value for a range of local, provincial and national government entities. This is his third strategy. He has chosen these partners carefully, reaching out to Ministries of Environment and Climate, for instance, rather than Agriculture, and found that the ALUS model he created has applications beyond farms and ranch land. For example, Bryan has partnered with officials from municipalities who discovered that their roads were being washed away because of climate change in order to position farmers and ranchers as part of the solution. These municipalities are also eager to make their cities more liveable.

Anyone who encounters ALUS feels valued and trusted to contribute tangibly to improve shared outcomes. This is key to Bryan’s scaling strategy. And the impact speaks for itself. From 2015, he has grown ALUS from eight communities in three provinces to 38 communities across six, many of which have had the biggest loss of natural habitat due to growth and extreme weather events. These Partnership Advisory Committees are building new climate solutions networks with more than 1,600 farmers and ranchers at their core. More than 31,000 acres of wetland ecosystems and 28,000 acres of new pollinator habitats have been built, which is 5,400 and 5,000 more than just last year, respectively. And some 8,000 acres have been reforested with native trees and shrubs. Many of the projects’ impact has been analyzed and verified by experts at the University of Guelph and Université du Québec en Outaouais, as well as by those at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and InnoTech Alberta. Open-sourced knowledge products such as ALUS Guidebooks and Aquatic Species Infosheets ensure Partnership Advisory Committees’ learnings are available for more farmers and ranchers who might be interested in joining the effort. ALUS has also scaled recently to the US states of Iowa and Ohio, and Bryan has started conversations with stakeholders in Namibia and Ghana.

The Person

Bryan’s affinity for farming and solving shared problems was seeded early on. Both his grandparents and parents farmed for a living, so he grew up seeing how entrepreneurial farmers must be when faced with perennial challenges such as unpredictable weather, the threat of drought and pests, and fluctuating market prices. Bryan also recalls his grandfather telling him when he was young, “If you are only farming, you are not effectively using your time.” This enabled him to see that farmers have more potential than tilling the land alone, especially as winter months farming were not busy times.

Bryan returned to the farm from studying business at the Ivey Business School in southwest Ontario. His grandparents and parents had been tobacco farmers, and Bryan continued this work. Tobacco was still considered a decent crop to grow in the 1980s, but as views shifted, Bryan knew he and his family would need to reinvent to stay in business. He shifted to grass-feed cattle farming in 1993. He also applied what he had learned during travels in Kansas to restore native tall grass prairie on his land. It was drought tolerant and provided feed for livestock. It also supported endangered grassland birds like the meadowlark and the endangered American badger. It could host a suite of native pollinators, too. He had built natural capital that benefitted not only his new ranch but also the local community. His new 350-acre Y.U. Ranch would quickly build a name for itself, even though the agri-ecological food movement had yet to take off. And the farm’s additional 100 acres included trails, a cold-water stream for trout, and other conditions ideal for cattle to thrive. As Bryan’s ranch attracted more attention from buyers, he reconnected with his alma mater – the Ivey Business School at Western Ontario University. He collaborated with faculty to write two case studies about his shift to ranching and grass-fed beef production. They were popular additions to curricula are now taught at 100 universities across 19 countries. Bryan also guest lectures at business schools in and around Ontario, with the goal of seeding sustainability mindsets where business is taught.  

At a Christmas dinner in 2005, Bryan met Dave Reid, one of the initiators of the first ALUS concept note that would pay farmers to preserve existing natural resources on their land. Dave was then the stewardship coordinator with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Bryan, like many farmers, was skeptical of government officials and concerned that Dave would question him on adhering to the Species At-Risk Act. But as he and Dave spoke, Bryan saw the opportunity to enable more farmers to embark on a journey similar to his own, thereby leaving a legacy that stretched far beyond his own achievements. The third farmer to join the fledgling ALUS pilot, Bryan would go on to create a new ALUS model grounded in producer-driven Partnership Advisory Committees that cultivate trust and build bridges between farmers and stakeholders from government, academia, and the business world. The social capital these interactions have built is central to Bryan’s impact and have now reached communities in Ohio and Iowa. “ALUS opens the door to people to see a new world,” Bryan says. “Every farmer will read the newspaper differently. They will see themselves as actors in the fight against climate change.

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