The city of Edmonton is thriving. Having seen its population grow to over 1.3 million people, a growth of more than 13 percent from 2011 to 2016 (CBC News, Feb. 8, 2017), it is no surprise that local land that could be turned into suburban developments is in high demand.
Despite this seemingly lucrative opportunity, Doug Visser, who owns 93 hectares in Horse Hill, a farming neighborhood within Edmonton city limits, has chosen to place a conservation easement on his land to ensure the top-quality farmland could never be legally used for anything beyond community-based agriculture (Edmonton Journal, Apr. 3, 2017).
Visser, a member of Fellowship CRC in Edmonton, comes by his passion for both agriculture and social justice honestly. “My mom and dad bought the farm in 1958 from the homesteaders, and they did well by it,” he said. “At one point in their life, they were transformed, in that they no longer needed to continue to accumulate wealth so much. That transformation came from their travels with Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (now World Renew) in Haiti and in Sierra Leone.”
Visser said that in the 1980s, his parents’ strong social justice bent led them to put a restrictive covenant on the land, even as they continued to farm. Eventually they gave the land, with its restrictive covenant to preserve it in agriculture, to Christian Stewardship Services (CSS), a charity. They donated the land and kept the lease, which enabled them to stay living there, he said.
Visser and his wife began a vegetable farm on the land and did well enough that they were able to buy the farm back from CSS. The restrictive covenant stayed in place, but the general public was unaware of its existence.
Because of the pressures of suburbanization and development, it became possible in the province of Alberta to put a conservation easement on agricultural land as well as wild land, Visser said. “Our land has some pretty unique characteristics for growing vegetables and a great natural area—we’re along the river and there is old-growth forest there. We thought we should put a conservation easement on because it puts it out there in the public sphere.”
The Edmonton Area Land Trust (EALT) was tapped to be supporters of the easement, and a fundraising campaign was started to cover the fees, with Visser himself pledging to match donations up to $70,000.
The conservation easement, in addition to preventing valuable agricultural land from being paved over, also ensures that community agriculture, such as Riverbend Gardens (run by Visser’s daughter and son-in-law, Janelle and Aaron Herbert), can continue, as well as preserving 28 hectares of old-growth forest in the river valley, which is currently used for First Nations ceremonies.
The Kings University will receive part of the land when Visser dies in order to run programs for their environmental studies students.
Visser insists that the real story is not about him or his family but about the land itself. “We’re just here for a moment in time. We have an opportunity to hopefully prevent [the land] from being paved over so that it's there in the long run. Technically I'm the owner, but really I'm a part-time steward for a short time, and there's many people involved in advocating for the land.”