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Windbreaks a tough sell, but still key

A Kandiyohi County plow truck makes its way through a snow drift during the winter of 1996-97. The county has a list of trouble spots along county roads where the planting of living snow fences could greatly improve road safety and reduce snow plowing costs. Submitted

WILLMAR -- Like a door-to-door salesman, Rick Reimer is doing a lot of cold calling these days.

He believes the frigid January temperatures and blowing snow he braves will only help his cause.

Reimer, with the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District, is calling on landowners to interest them in planting field windbreaks and living snow fences. It's never been easier to do: There is 100 percent cost-sharing available to assist landowners, and usually affected property can be enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

Yet it can be a hard sell, unlike years ago when landowners often called on Reimer about installing field windbreaks.

Most were well aware of research -- including that by Iowa State University undertaken right here in Kandiyohi County -- documenting the very important benefits that field windbreaks provide to soils and crop yields.

It's different today. "It's hard to work against the negative word,'' said Reimer while driving through the open, wind-swept landscape of the county's prime agricultural lands.

Windbreaks have gotten their share of bad publicity due to past mistakes. Invasive species like Siberian elms were made a component of windbreaks, and now there is a struggle to control them.

Trees were sometimes planted where they didn't belong, in some cases compromising the efforts to re-establish grasslands and the wildlife they sustain.

Along with the bad rap, field windbreaks have been usurped in the conservation field by the growing emphasis on vegetative buffers, wetland restoration and other strategies to improve water quality by controlling water-caused erosion.

Lost in the discussion is the fact that windbreaks can be big part of helping clean up waterways. One look at the "snirt'' colored snow that fill the ditches in late winter, and it's obvious soil is transported to waterways by the wind, Reimer said.

Slowing the wind goes a long way toward reducing topsoil losses, and that in itself remains critical, he said. Windbreaks also can help crop yields by lowering wind stress on crops and holding moisture.

Much of Reimer's focus today is also on road safety. Living snow fences along roadways have helped improve traffic safety while also taking a big bite out of snowplowing costs.

Reimer keeps a map in his office where snowplow operators in the county have identified stretches of county and township roadway where field windbreaks could provide tremendous benefits. Landowners in those areas are among those he continues to call.

Kandiyohi County has long been a leader in installing windbreaks, and Reimer's answer to the skeptics is to take them on a tour of its most productive farmlands. There are many miles of windbreaks protecting valuable soils in areas of southern Kandiyohi County. Their owners have become the biggest advocates for them, said Reimer.

Each year he works with many landowners who are looking to replace aging windbreaks that protect fields or building sites.

Yet he also sees plenty of instances where the county is losing windbreaks as abandoned farm sites are removed, or fields are made larger and adapted to larger equipment. Overall, he fears the county is losing more windbreaks than are being replaced.

There is science to installing a living snow fence or field windbreaks, but it's always possible to plant the lines of shrubs and trees to accommodate farming needs, said Reimer. "They'll make it fit your farming operation,'' he said.

This January's cold temperatures and blowing snows are making apparent the benefits of living snow fences, Reimer said. He believes the blowing snow in fields, and the snirt that will inevitably show when winter wanes, may also help stimulate landowner interest in field windbreaks.

Now is the time to start planting, and he encourages those interested in learning more to contact the SWCD office at 320-235-3906.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335