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Legacy of Trees

March 8, 2022

Passion, economics, and practicality meet in this ground-breaking work.

Jack Benham pocketed several oatmeal cookies after breakfast then headed to the marsh to explore with his dog until dark. Born in 1934, that’s how he remembers his summers as a child growing up on a farm outside of Damascus, Ontario.

Jack dropped out in high school. He loved nature and trees, but the one-room schoolhouse he attended didn’t have any resources on plants or nature and he didn’t understand how learning French and Latin would help him—or his cows.

He planted his first tree when he joined the 4H Club at 12 years old and met two young men in the forestry club who knew about trees.

“They knew the names of the trees,” Jack said. “They couldn’t get rid of me. They came to visit, and we went to the bush.”

At the age of 86, he is still planting trees, though he mostly coordinates the planting from the tractor now. He has no formal training related to trees or the environment, and he still doesn’t care to learn Latin, including the Latin names of the trees, but his expertise has been sought out for various projects over the years. He worked for the Grand River Conservation Authority for 15 years and has built trails with community volunteers in Damascus and Arthur. Always, he is planting trees. Hundreds of trees every year.

“I have planted trees every year since 1946,” he said. “If you lie on your back and see the veins of the leaves, then look past and see the blue sky and the fluffy clouds, why would you want to be in the house watching TV?”

Over the years Jack has worked closely with The Green Legacy Programme, an initiative that began in 2004 with the goal of planting 150,000 trees to celebrate Wellington County’s 150-year anniversary. It was so successful it received United Nations recognition in 2007 and will plant its three millionth tree this year.

The program provides landowners with free trees and works with every school in the Upper Grand District School Board and the Wellington Catholic District School Board, educating students and giving them hands-on experience planting seeds and trees.

“They are involved in our program for the first 10 years of school,” said Rob Johnson, manager of The Green Legacy.

“We are now starting to see the children of our first students now participating in the program—which is just wonderful.”

Rob has a 10-acre farm where his wife operates a certified organic market garden while Rob takes care of the trees and shrubs. Together they have planted more than 1,000 trees on their property using agroforestry practices such as alley cropping—dividing the garden with fruit and nut trees, and silvopasturing—planting rows of fruit and nut trees within a pasture. The trees in their 3.5-acre pig pasture provide shade for their kunekune pigs, who in turn eat the fallen fruit and nuts, removing potential pests and pathogens from the trees.

In 2010, Rob ran 100 kilometres across Wellington County to raise awareness of the initiative. He started in Mount Forest at 7 a.m. and finished at The Bradford Whitcombe Green Legacy Tree Nursery near Puslinch. His run was part of a ceremony to celebrate planting The Green Legacy’s one millionth tree.

“I quickly realized that nature was only respected and preserved when the citizens wanted to protect it,” he said. “Jacque Cousteau said, ‘People protect what they love,’ and we can only love what we understand. Through education we can create understanding and more people will love and appreciate everything our natural world provides for us.”

His challenge to the community was for everyone to take an hour to plant 10 trees in the county each year to work toward the goal of 30 percent tree cover in Wellington County, which would require planting 50 million trees. Many residents have taken his challenge, planting tens, hundreds, or thousands of trees. In 2019, The Green Legacy awarded Reg and Liz Samis with the Green Legacy’s Agricultural Award of Excellence for their strong environmental leadership and good land stewardship.

They have planted more than 25,000 trees over the past 40 years, an estimated 30 to 40 acres, in windbreaks, stream buffers, and forested lands on the four farms they owned.

Liz and Reg have always enjoyed trees.

“When you’re a livestock farmer you can’t just go away for a weekend, so we have always taken enjoyment in the woods and taking walks with the kids while they were growing up,” Liz said.

They began planting to enhance farming in the 1980s after their children came home with books about the environment and began asking questions. Liz described seeing their livestock in the creek and realizing they needed to make some changes for long-term sustainability.

They stopped pasturing their cows by the river and began building riparian buffers along creek banks, planting windbreaks, and naturalizing areas that were not workable on the farm. They have seen a reduction in soil erosion and a moderating effect on the climate around the trees.

“I’m not a tree hugger,” Liz said. “I’m not opposed to harvesting a forest and reaping the benefits but planting trees in the right place has benefited our crops and our yields.”

In 2008, Liz became part of the Trees for Mapleton committee. The committee works with other programs, primarily through the County of Wellington and the Grand River Conservation Area, to help educate and assist people in strategically planting trees on farms and smaller properties. One of their current goals is to plant a tree in the Paul Day Legacy Forest for each of the 10,527 people living in the Township of Mapleton. The forest is in memory of Paul Day, a tree-planting advocate and one of the committee’s founders. The forest consists of native trees that were found in the area in the 1840s when Mapleton Township—Peel and Maryborough townships at the time—was surveyed.

Last spring, Liz and Reg retired four acres of workable land that was prone to flooding along the Conestoga River outside of Drayton and planted it as part of the forest.

“Our grandchildren will benefit from the trees, it’s kind of a legacy,” Liz said. “I love the livestock and the crops, but the trees, they’re in a different category. They’re more lasting.”