Stewardship motivates farm family to restore wetlands


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Submitted photo

Valerie and Tom Northam stand beside one of the wetlands at their Rapid City area farm. As part of a conservation agreement with Ducks Unlimited Canada, the couple is restoring eight wetlands and protecting another 20.

By Ian Hitchen

Ducks Unlimited Canada

To say their land is important to Tom and Valerie Northam would be an understatement. To them, they and their land are one.

The Rapid City area couple’s home is on land that has been farmed by Tom’s family for nearly 90 years.

As a boy, Tom enjoyed trips to the local swimming hole and biked to local marshes to watch songbirds in the reeds. Valerie homeschooled three of their four sons, and their property was their outdoor classroom. The eldest son now studies biology and chemistry at university.

“Someday, who knows, maybe our sons will have it,” says Valerie, referring to their farm. “But the thing is, we want to protect it no matter what.”

The Northams are among the latest Manitoba landowners to access DUC programs that help them restore and conserve natural areas on their property while earning extra money. The couple is working with DUC to return parts of their property to a natural state by restoring drained wetlands, in their case as part of a DUC conservation agreement.

Under DUC’s Conservation Agreement program, landowners receive a one-time lump sum payment if they agree not to break or drain wetlands or surrounding habitat. The agreement is permanent, remaining even if the land is sold, but there’s flexibility to allow for haying, grazing, and cultivation of certain wetlands during dry periods.

A growing number of Manitoba landowners are signing conservation agreements with DUC. Last year alone, more than 30 signed up and protected about 7,000 acres (2,832 hectares) of habitat. While payments vary, last year the average landowner payment for a conservation agreement was $92,000.

Restoring nature a viable financial option

Now, more landowners will get the same chance to restore nature as DUC has recently received funding for wetland restoration through the Lake Winnipeg Basin Program. DUC currently pays landowners $1,500 per acre when they sign a 10-year wetland restoration agreement. Ponds and marshes are restored by plugging drainage ditches with small, natural-looking earthen dams.

Incentives are greater for landowners if restoration is done with a conservation agreement.

As part of their agreement, the Northams are restoring eight wetlands covering more than nine acres (nearly four hectares). They’ll permanently protect another 20 basins, and preserve some grassland where their livestock graze.

For them, though, this isn’t about the money. Tom says their conservation agreement strikes the right balance between nature and agriculture.

“You’re protecting the wetlands for the future, and it provides income.”

The wetlands on the family’s property have provided fond memories and enriched their lives.

The marshes and their habitat bring wildlife that delight the family—ducks, geese, eagles, cranes, pelicans, owls, moose, deer, and even bears.

Plus, the shallow basins provide livestock at their farm with water during drought and prevents flooding of downstream neighbours by slowing runoff.

The Northams’ conservation work with DUC will directly benefit their farm too, as they intend to buy a tractor with the incentive payments they receive.

But it’s stewardship that really motivates the couple. As landowners, they believe they’re responsible for preserving nature and encourage others to do the same.

“Together, we can all make a difference. I know that may sound like a speech, but it’s true,” Valerie says.

Western Manitoba landowners interested in working with DUC can contact its Brandon office at 204-729-3500.