To the Forest and Back

forest leaves

I am a farmer.  I have never written a blog piece as there always seems to be something else to do around the farm.  However, what got my attention is that it gives me an opportunity to tell my story; a story that has a lot to do with “trees,” both disappearing and reappearing.

Our family moved to the farm in 1983 and is situated on the prairies in Alberta, Canada.  We farmed the industrial model raising beef and growing grain on our 800 acres.  It’s a challenge for a small farm to compete in the global market place.  Instead of buying more land, it seemed like a good idea to clear trees, bring more land into cultivation and grow more grain.  This was not a wise decision. While attempting to grow the market economy we had been destroying the nature economy.

After twelve years, we decided to consider other options.  An eight day course in Holistic Management was offered in our area.  It taught us to strive to farm “in harmony with nature.”  This course changed how we farmed and how we have come to view the land.  We chose to change to a grass based, certified organic niche model.

Our initial task was to relearn the importance of “nature.” What clearly stood out were the areas where the trees had been cleared in and around the perimeter of fields, around wetlands and in riparian areas.  There is a saying that “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”  The student was ready and seemingly, by coincidence, our paths began crossing with those people who were going to help us to have a greater understanding of nature.

Research and development in agroforestry has provided us with various options to put trees back on the landscape and rebuild the nature economy.  Water quality and quantity, diversity, biodiversity, habitat and climate change were some of the factors that we considered to be of prime importance.


We started the re-planting with agroforestry specialists who designed shelterbelts that form a two row perimeter around and down the centre of each of our five quarter sections.  One row is maple or ash trees and the other consists of a variety of berry bushes.  These rows of trees slow the wind, trap snow, and provide habitat for many species of birds, insects and mammals as well as corridors for wildlife to move around our farm without being noticed.


Riparian areas along creeks and wetlands had been overgrazed by our cattle.   Riparian specialists made us aware of the value that these areas have, not only to farmers but to society.  When managed properly, these areas capture and store water.  They are now fenced and grazed during dormancy which leaves mature forages for habitat for wildlife and a filter to improve and maintain water quality.  With cattle being excluded during the growing season, the native trees, shrubs and grasses have re-established and their root systems are stabilizing the creek banks and providing food for migrating birds.

Wildlife Habitat Plantings

Wildlife habitat plantings are another agroforestry design that is providing an increase of biodiversity.  These plantings are an acre in size and consist of ten rows of trees spaced eight feet apart and 150 feet long.   There are sixteen different species of conifers, deciduous, berry bushes and shrubs in these plots that total over 5,000 trees and shrubs.  We have planted six of these habitat plantings and have noticed a variety of insects and an increase in new bird species.


This design consists of three to seven rows of native trees and shrubs with diverse characteristics such as thorny, suckering, tall, short, fruiting, fast or slow growing. The rows are four feet apart making for a very dense planting which, in trials, has yielded a tenfold increase in species at the site after only five years.  In order to entice native pollinators, twenty different species of native flowering plants have been added.  Pollinators are responsible for every third bite of food that we take.  From spring until late fall, there is always something flowering in this planting.  We have planted three of these plantings on the farm.

I never kept track of the number of trees that I cleared during our early years on the farm.  We have planted over 60,000 trees since 2003.  Much of the forest that we cleared is now back, re-planted and fenced off from our cattle.  The diversity of tree species has been responsible for much of the increase in biodiversity.  The saying, “If you build it, they will come” has proven to be true.

As a small farm, according to Canadian standards, we feel that it is important to market the food that we grow right from the farm.  The concern for the “environment” is on the radar of most people.   Since we can’t compete with the cheap price of food from global markets, we feel that our unfair advantage is to offer tours to various groups and families to show them how we care for the land.  We hope that they understand that if we were to lower the price of the food we sell, the land will pay that price with another cycle of trees being cleared so that we can grow more food.  With climate change advancing, we may not have a second chance to rebuild the nature economy.

When asked what motivates a change to respect nature, I think of biologist E.O. Wilson who claims that we all have “biophilia” which means that we are all hard wired to care for nature, but we require a catalyst.  For us, the HM course was a start.  After that, the biologists, ecologists, riparian and agroforestry specialists inspired us with their passion, knowledge and wisdom.  If the trees could speak, they would say that “it is good to hear the sound of their feet on the land.”

Blog post by Don Ruzicka, Sunrise Farm (Killam, Alberta, Canada) – ruzickadon(at)
Picture by Peter Casier

2 People have left comments on this post

» Rajendra Prasad said: { Feb 8, 2014 - 05:02:19 }

Great efforts toward achieving resiliency in farm production and conserving natural bioresource. caring for envirnment using ecofriendly farm technologies will secure resources for our future generations.

» Ganesan RP said: { Feb 8, 2014 - 01:02:47 }

Thanks for understanding the nature and your efforts to your farm. In India, most of states, we are allowed to 15 std acres, 50 acre owner is called landlord.

Keep going, hope we will meet.

Vigyan Bhavan & Kempinski Ambience

10 - 14 February 2014 Delhi, India
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