By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Susan Chan likes what her family calls, her “projects”. Carrying on the legacy of her father, John Hindmarsh, Susan has continued to create conservation projects on the home farm on Highway 21 just outside of Goderich.
Featuring several ponds, Bobolink habitat, wild meadows and forested area preserving the endangered Butternut tree, the farm has a Conservation Easement via the Ontario Farmland Trust which protects 80 acres of farmland and 60 acres of wetlands and forest into perpetuity.
The farm is now for sale with a price tag of $1.4 million and Susan is hopeful but worried about finding a buyer who will honour her family’s legacy and conserve the diverse agricultural and environmental land the family has owned since 1947.
“It is an important legacy of ours to protect this land in perpetuity,” says Susan, now 77, a keen walker who took me through the property. To say the farm is gorgeous is an understatement. We see a flock of Mallards fly off a peaceful pond and a muskrat snaking his skinny tail though the reeds. Fall sunshine highlights the golden leaves of the beech trees while cedars cast green shadows over the blue waters of one of the larger ponds. The farmland sits fallow now that harvest is done and the horse barn lies waiting, housing only hay and old harnesses, the horses long gone from the farm. Squirrels have taken over a little log cabin from which red geraniums still bloom bright this late in the season. The farmhouse is a product of its time, with wallpapered ceilings and an old stone fireplace. Natural light streams in the windows and one feels ready to sit in one of the rocking chairs and reads[ the newspaper. There is work to be done to bring the buildings back to their former glory but the marriage of farmland to wetland areas is smooth and natural.
Walkers and runners who use the Maitland Trail actually traverse the Hindmarsh farm when they take the John Hindmarsh Trail. It’s something the family encourages.
“We love it when people enjoy this trail,” says Susan, pointing out rocks and benches that have been installed alongside the trail honouring her father and others who played a part in creating the trail and the farm’s ecological features.
Equally significant, is the value of farmland in terms of feeding families, versus being eaten up by industry or housing. In this area of Ontario, land sells in the range of $15,000 per acre.
“Farmland is so important,” says Susan from the kitchen table where her mother, Marian Hindmarsh, now 100, ate her meals until just a few weeks ago. She lived alone here, supported by her children, until it became necessary for extra care. This is very much a family farm in the sense of childhood memories being made across generations, along with it being a one-time beef farm and now, a crop farm rented to nearby neighbours.
Susan herself is a nurse, married to a doctor in the town of Goderich. Her children grew up helping their grandfather build and create. It’s hard, emotionally, to sell the property but it’s what her mother and four siblings agreed on. While the Conservation Easement makes total sense to her family, will the right buyer come along?
It’s a fair question says Donny Rivers, Broker of Record and owner of Coldwell Banker, which has listed the farm.
“Certainly there is somebody who will love this property and purchase it, no question. But as far as attracting the stereotypical buyer and tapping into the bigger pool of buyers, they are not interested in this property,” says Rivers. The typical farmer, he explained, is looking to increase their acreage, not to deal with easements which give other organizations (Ontario Farmland Trust in this case) legal control over parts of their property.
“However, we may get a farmer who wants to live there, work the land and enjoy the rest of it,” says Rivers.
Melisa Luymes, a friend of the family, who helped the Hindmarshes get the funding for a wetland project when she worked with the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority, agrees.
“Someone will be captured by the vision they (the Hindmarsh family) started,” says Luymes. “The Hindmarshes are so community-oriented. They let people on the property to walk through the bush and they believe in preserving nature and preserving farms and they are so dedicated to that. I just really hope that someone with that same mindset comes to buy that farm because it is a special place.”
That would be ideal, says Susan who, obviously, is a fan of land trusts.
“Land trusts serve a crucial role in being able not only to protect agricultural land but also the ecological values that strengthen and diversify our environment,” says Susan. Working with Ontario Farmland Trust, the farm is now protected, sparing it from the encroaching development. A factory, currently being expanded, is visible from the farm boundaries.
Documentation from the Ontario Farmland Trust describes a Farmland Easement Agreement as a “permanent, legal agreement between a landowner and the Ontario Farmland Trust that ensures land is protected forever.”
The protection is listed on the property title and runs with the land in perpetuity. The easement agreement contains provisions that protect the farmland and natural areas by limiting or restricting land uses that are not compatible with agriculture and conservation purposes, such as housing subdivisions or aggregate operations.
“Our goal, through easements, is to permanently protect as many farms as we can for agriculture,” says Kathryn Enders, Executive Director of OFT.
Currently, 15 farms in Ontario have legally binding conservation easements through OFT with another 14 more currently being worked on. The process can take one to two years because there are a lot of processes involved. These can include ecological assessments, surveys, appraisals and a lot of legal work. Costs for the process can range from $35,000 to $50,000 which includes monies set aside into a long-term stewardship fund.
“This is a long-term arrangement so we go to the farms at least once a year to make sure the land is being maintained as the owner (and the trust) intended,” says Elders.
Future builds and expansion are monitored. “If new buildings are related to the operation of the farm, there is usually an easy approval process of keeping with the intent of the farm trust,” says Elders. She recognized that many farmers, lawyers or real estate agents don’t fully understand what having a conservation easement entails. To that end, she encourages people to call her.
“We are here to make sure the land remains in farming so I will sit down with whoever is interested and, across the dinner table, go through the process line by line so they understand what they can and cannot do,” says Elders.
As to the Hindmarsh Farm, Elders says she just loves going there. “It is a beautiful property and they really take care of it,” she says. “It really is a farm for farmers because it will forever stay in farmland.”
The Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) has been heavily involved in transforming the “wet and wild” parts of the farm into natural habitat. Wetlands were created to support waterfowl and endangered species, decrease water runoff, protect shoreline from erosion and reclaim arable land.
“This farm has a good combination of preserving agricultural land and naturalizing the areas that aren’t as productive,” says Geoff King, Stewardship Coordinator with the MVCA. He has been involved in many of Susan’s projects on the farm.
“What amazes me is that a lot of the work done on the farm was done by John Hindmarsh in his younger days,” says King. “I’m not sure if John was fully aware that what he was doing is exactly what we do with storm water management. The buffers and channels he created were the very stuff of what we were preaching.”
The farm is noted for being a home to species at risk such as Butternut trees and Monarch butterflies. Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks and the Least Bittern also thrive here.
Extensive work has also been done to remove phragmites, says Susan, who says she’s been very pleased with the progress as the invasive species is almost eradicated.
John Hindmarsh was an environmental visionary. In connection with the farm, he was instrumental in the restoration and preservation of Naftel’s Creek and Saratoga Swamp, both picturesque natural properties. An avid flyer, Hindmarsh was a pilot and flight instructor. He was killed in a plane crash in 1995.
The Maitland Conservation Foundation established the John Hindmarsh Environmental Trust Fund in October 1996 to commemorate his life and ensure his commitment to the environment would continue. The fund supports naturalization projects like dune grass planting to protect beaches, tree planting on marginalized lands, upgrades at conservation areas and community education events at places such as the Wawanosh Nature Centre.
The farmland is currently being rented to nearby farmers who have adopted the Hindmarsh philosophy. Hayfields are cut later, allowing fledgling bobolinks in their ground nests in grassy fields to survive.
Reflecting on the property, Susan recalls an idyllic childhood riding horses, building the log cabin, jumping in hay piles and playing in the streams. “We were free to be outside,” she says.
For those who also love “outside”, this is a place that is preserving those opportunities for that special new buyer who understands both the limitiations and possiblities of properties like the Hindmarsh Farm which make sure those outside places are never lost. ◊