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Nature-based solutions a sustainable alternative to costlier agricultural improvements for Kyle Hiebert

Anyone who wonders how land restoration fits in with one’s overall farm production plan should chat with Kyle Hiebert.

Pick standing in front of a wind turbine
Kyle Hiebert is the 2024 recipient of the LPRCA Conservation Stewardship Award

Hiebert, 29, of Hiebert Farms, is a third-generation “junior partner” in a cash crop farm operation near Port Rowan. Alongside of his father Barry; his uncle, Dan; and cousin, Justin, he grows nearly 2000 acres of cash crops (corn, wheat, soybeans, asparagus, black beans and rye) on owned and rented land. Heibert Farms also builds and installs precision upgrades on farm equipment – planters, combines and sprayers. They gain additional income through a lease agreement with a company that installed wind towers on their land.

Hiebert is this year’s recipient of the Long Point Region Conservation Authority (LPRCA) Conservation Stewardship Award. 

The LPRCA created it to recognize individuals or groups who made a commitment to environmental sustainability and conservation. In Kyle’s case, this commitment recognizes his ongoing conservation work with ALUS Norfolk, which nominated him for the award. 

ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services) is a charitable-based organization that provides communities with a turn-key program that engages farmers and ranchers in creating nature-based solutions to protect, enhance and increase natural capital on their farms; that is wetlands, forest cover, hedgerows, native grasslands and pollinator habitats. ALUS Norfolk was the first ALUS community to launch in Ontario in 2007 and is the longest continuously running ALUS community.

Wind turbine in a field
ALUS Norfolk planted seven native tree species on this grassy clay field at Kyle Hiebert’s farm.

The program targets marginal land or low-yielding fields to restore ecosystem functions that improves water and air quality, pollination, erosion control and long-term biodiversity. Projects can include creating wetland areas in wet spots; retiring field edges situated near water courses; or re-establishing dee p-rooted perennial grasses (tallgrass prairie) as buffers on high, sandy knolls or other erosion-prone areas.

The LRPCA’s official statement about Hiebert reads: “Kyle … is committed to positive environmental actions … through his stewardship at his own farm and the family farm. Kyle has participated in tree planting and wetland conservation projects … with LPRCA and other partners. His future plans for the farm include grassed waterways and a tallgrass prairie project to minimize erosion.”

“Kyle is definitely a promoter of ALUS,” said Stephanie Giles, the general coordinator of ALUS Norfolk. “ALUS Norfolk worked with Kyle to establish 0.9 acres of reforestation projects, and a 0.1 acre of grassed waterways to mitigate water erosion on Kyle’s fields, in addition to planting 2.75 acres of native tallgrass prairie.”

Hiebert centred his ALUS projects on his personal farm, a 75-acre site with 45 workable acres that he purchased in 2017. Located three kilometers north of Lake Erie; the farm abuts his grandfather’s original farm, purchased in 1968.

“The farm had a one-acre isolated field and several other fields that were too small to work with,” said Hiebert. Therefore, in 2018, he partnered with ALUS Norfolk to commence the restoration work.

The resulting benefits impressed Hiebert so much that by 2020 he joined the ALUS Norfolk Partnership Advisory Committee (PAC). The PAC is the governing body of the local ALUS program and consists of community stakeholders, including 50% farmers and ranchers, who are responsible for deciding which ALUS projects will proceed in their community.

Hiebert said that the tree species planted in his land improvement included “a good mix” of white pine, red oak, burr oak, shagbark history, butternut hickory, American sycamore and tamarack. They went on clay land, some of which is sloped. 

The grassed waterway also went on sloped clay with plans to expand it because, “land is too expensive for it to wash out into the lake.”

The original tallgrass prairie that Hiebert planted was on a one-third acre site where he intended eventually relocate a neighbour’s home for himself, his wife Alicia, and their four children. The house has since been moved to his farm.

 “The nice thing about ALUS is that property owners have a say and some control over use of the land compared with some other programs. Another nice thing about ALUS is that it is flexible.”

Hiebert rejected pricier options for managing unviable farmland, such as installing tile drainage or removing hedge rows to create larger fields. “My suggestion to landowners is that it’s better to fill in with something more ecological. Often the cost is shared through ALUS – although they run on donations.”

Both Hiebert and Giles stressed that participating farmers commit to a long-term management agreement with ALUS once they agree upon a suitable project. Farmers prepare the sites and then manage them under ALUS supervision for approximately five years.

“Resilient land use practices deliver the most benefit through a long-term commitment for managing the projects for the intended ecological services,” stated Giles. “ALUS contributes a unique … model of support that provides the farmer both establishment costs and an annual payment per acre for the management and production of the ecosystem services…. This model helps to ensure the longevity of the established environmental projects.”

ALUS Norfolk participants receive a $150 per acre annual payment over five years, said Giles. 

Hiebert’s upbringing, Mennonite faith and farm experience grounded him in environmental and social sustainability values. His family’s cropping practices include using strip tillage with GPS lines for corn and no-till for wheat and black beans. Their rye serves as a cover crop. They use aged manure hauled in from local feedlots because, “it provides better gains for us than with other agricultural products.” 

Hiebert trained as a heavy equipment mechanic and worked with earth movers in local construction prior to joining the family operation as a full-time partner.

The website states that approximately 10 percent of Norfolk farmers have enrolled in the ALUS Norfolk program, with nearly 200 farm families and more than 1,600 acres (6,475 ha) of marginal farmland rebuilt into a natural environment. 


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