Planting 45,000 trees on potential farmland could raise a few eyebrows, but for Sturgeon County’s Jo-Anne and Ward Middleton, it’s a responsibility. For their conservation efforts, they were named as a Sturgeon County Excellence in Agriculture Award.
For them, the trees provide a personal recreation area, a shelter belt, and an area to help manage water. Wildlife and future Sturgeon County residents will also benefit from this area for years to come.
Since 2009, the family has been paying a significant portion of the cost to plant fast-growing native tree seedlings such as pine and spruce on the 80-acre parcel. They hope it will help to double the forest’s footprint.
It wasn’t a difficult decision for the family to return the land to its natural forested condition. The land wasn’t suitable for growing the organic wheat and rye that they sell directly to customers through their business, Midmore Farms. Instead, they considered it their responsibility to be stewards of the land.
“It was strictly a personal choice,” explained Ward of the reforestation project located a few minutes from the Middleton farm, which is seven kilometres north of Morinville. The idea was sown after a discussion 30 years ago with a farmer in Sweden.
“He said he had a moral obligation to plant those trees there because somebody had [previously] planted the trees for him,” recalled Ward. “He said they were in straight rows, so somebody had the foresight to plant those rows of trees 250 years ago.”
“It was an epiphany moment for us,” said Ward.
The Middleton’s subsequent tree planting and other conservation practices were recently recognized by Sturgeon County through a 2023 Excellence in Agriculture Award, an honour given out to residents who demonstrate excellence in improving the environment, local communities, and the economy.
The family has done other projects through ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services) program, of which Sturgeon County is a member. They built fences around a dugout and a riparian area after their cattle caused damage trying to get to the water. There was also a risk of surface water contamination from the manure, so solar energy is now used to pump water year-round to the drinking troughs in the pasture.
Environmental stewardship is a value passed down from Ward’s father, Armer, who once transformed a slough into a permanent wetland with three protective islands for ducks after he saw coyotes preying on the young birds.
“It’s in the middle of our field … we still farm around it. It is a legacy that nobody else in the public can see, but we know that it’s there,” said Ward of his dad’s contribution to the farm that’s been in the family for 85 years. “My father would allow a tree to grow even if it was in the way. He would say, ‘the tree should be given more respect than our man-made buildings and structures.’”
The Middletons hope more people will explore the ALUS program and discover the long-lasting benefits.
“If you have a project that has been on the back burner, whether or not there’s resources at play, it’s worth contacting the Sturgeon ALUS coordinator and just talking about it,” said Ward.
Jo-Anne encourages other farmers with unusable land pockets, such as field corners too tight to navigate equipment turns, to think about planting a few trees through the ALUS program.
“I guess as we get older, we realize, well, we won’t be here forever … so maybe we can inspire.”
Jo-Anne and Ward Middleton