by Stew Hilts, December 2011.

The Centre for Land and Water Stewardship at the University of Guelph is a research and outreach centre established first in 1986, when soil erosion in Ontario’s Great Lakes Basin was a serious concern.  Over 25 years, it has evolved through a number of initiatives focused on the environmental impacts of agriculture, and the role of farmers in practicing soil and water conservation to it’s work today – focused in recent years on farmland preservation policies, new ethnic crops, and leadership training programs for young conservation professionals.  The Centre founded and still co-sponsors the premier annual conservation event in Ontario, the A.D. Latornell Conservation Symposium, now entering year 20.  During this time the Centre has received almost $10 million dollars in financial support for its programs, from a wide variety of funders.

Early History:

Dr. Murray Miller, who conducted ground-breaking research on soil erosion and the contribution of phosphorus to pollution of the Great Lakes, spear-headed the creation of the Centre in 1986.  It started life as the Centre for Soil and Water Conservation, with substantial funding from both Agriculture Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and was proposed as an important initiative emerging from the joint Canadian/U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

A key element of the program was the establishment of the Soil and Water Conservation Information Bureau, designed to provide information to support Ontario farmers in implementing on-farm soil erosion control.  With government grants to farmers to support adoption of improved conservation practices, the phrase ‘land stewardship’ came into widespread use, used as the title for the government grant programs, Land Stewardship I and II.  Practices such as planting buffer strips and windbreaks, and various forms of reduced tillage, including the now widely used ‘no till’ were supported, with considerable success over the following decade or more.

A second key element of the program was the creation of the Chair in Land Stewardship.  Held by Dr. Michael Goss, this position provided focused research on issues in agricultural land stewardship.  In particular, Dr. Goss carried out several major projects related to the impact of farm practices, especially manure management, on water quality.  He became known as one of the provincial experts on nutrient management and was a key expert witness during the Walkerton Inquiry, where he provided important background documentation on the water quality issues for the hearing officers.

During these years the Environmental Farm Coalition also emerged, and the Environmental Farm Plan was developed and implemented.  University researchers associated with the Centre had widespread input to this program, assisting with development of the on-farm assessment manual, and several of the revolutionary Best Management Practice Manuals, especially those on soil, nutrient, manure, water, and fish and wildlife habitat management.

The Information Bureau evolved into the Stewardship Information Bureau, and continued in operation until 1996, with funding provided through Canada’s Green Plan.

A New Name and Mandate:

In 1992, the name of the Centre was changed to the current ‘Centre for Land and Water Stewardship’.  The mandate was also broadened to reflect concerns with broader concerns about agricultural land stewardship beyond soil erosion, especially the growing concern with manure and nutrient management.  Shortly thereafter, Dr. Stewart Hilts became the Director of the Centre.  He helped provide management during the latter years of the programs described above, but also developed a number of new initiatives reflecting the broader mandate of the Centre.

Dr. Hilts’ studies have involved development and testing of stewardship programs to support rural landowners in caring for their land, and he has written several handbooks and a book for such landowners, including ‘Caring for Your Land’ and ‘The Woodlot Management Handbook’.  He has been a leader in supporting the development of land trusts in Canada – community organizations to promote conservation.  And he founded and is still Chair of the Ontario Farmland Trust, an organization promoting new approaches to preserving farmland from urbanization, which grew out of a Centre research project.  All these projects took the Centre in broader directions beyond agriculture, to a more diverse view of issues in rural land stewardship.

Major projects of the Centre in recent years have been the ‘New Farmers’ project and the ‘New Crops’ project, developed jointly with FarmStart, an organization which provides training for would-be new farmers.  In the New Farmers project, education, tours and an ‘incubator farm’ have been provided for people wishing to test their ideas before entering farming.  An important aspect of this has been involvement with immigrants living in Toronto who have backgrounds in agriculture.  A training farm has been developed in co-operation with Toronto Region Conservation, and is in active use.  Many of the would-be farmers are young people from urban backgrounds hoping to enter farming; others are second career farmers, moving to rural areas following a professional career.

In the New Crops project, six new ethnic crops were tested for their viability growing in southern Ontario.  Crops such as bitter melon and callaloo were grown on several different farms, with support from the government of Pakistan in providing seed sources.  The project was so successful that it has now evolved into full-scale crop and varietal trials at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.  Crop selection and marketing has been done in co-operation with numerous immigrant groups in the Greater Toronto Area, who are now also growing such crops in various urban community gardens.  Peter Mitchell, a long-standing Research Associate in the Centre, has successfully spear-headed this entire initiative and continues to work in this area.

Outreach and Leadership Programs:

Two other major initiatives have made the Centre well known in the conservation community across Ontario.  In 1993 Dr. Hilts and Peter Mitchell first established the major annual Latornell Conservation Symposium, now coming up to its 20th year, and the largest ongoing annual conference of conservation professionals in Canada.  The symposium draws over 1000 people, many of them young professionals, to an annual 3 day event.  It provides a rich background of networks for the research and outreach efforts of the Centre, and is a vital professional development opportunity for the entire conservation community.  The University of Guelph co-sponsors this symposium with Conservation Ontario.

Dr. Hilts and Mr. Mitchell also developed the Young Conservation Professionals leadership training program.  This program brings together 20 young professionals for a series of workshops over a year, and builds a network among these young people that provides powerful support for their careers.  Now entering year eight, it has become very popular with young professionals in the conservation community.  Participants report a significant personal benefit in terms of increased confidence and ability to ‘step up into a position of leadership’.

Both of these initiatives are supported by the A.D. Latornell Endowment to the University of Guelph, along with several other smaller programs, together known as the professional education and development component of the endowment.  The Endowment also provides a significant number of graduate scholarships and travel grants to both graduate and undergraduate students every year.  The Centre provides a home for these programs, which are overseen by the Latornell Endowment Management Committee, including outside representation from Ontario’s conservation community.

New Directions:

Since 2008 two changes have led to rethinking the position and mandate of the Centre for Land and Water Stewardship.  The Department of Land Resource Science has amalgamated with the former Department of Environmental Biology to form a School of Environmental Sciences.  It has also moved to a new building on campus, Alexander Hall.  In 2010 Dr. Stew Hilts retired from the university and was elevated to Professor Emeritus. He retains an honourary role in several areas including a seat on the Latornell Endowment Management Committee.

The Centre is therefore moving in creative new directions, and is housed in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, under the leadership of Dr. Robert Corry.  Its umbrella incorporates a number of programs in that area, including Dr. Wayne Caldwell’s work on rural land stewardship programs for rural non-farm landowners.  The Centre will continue as the home of the Latornell Endowment programs under the leadership of Dr. Bronwynne Wilton, including the Young Conservation Professionals program (YCP). The Centre continues to build its innovative outreach and programming in the broad field of land and water stewardship into the future.

Updated: February 2012.

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