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USDA and MnDOT promote creation of living snow fences

WILLMAR -- This winter season has served as a reminder that driving on snow-covered roads in Minnesota can be a real challenge, especially when the wind blows. Almost all of us have experienced driving in near white-out conditions and know personally both the fear and danger that they create.

No, we can't keep the snow from falling, but perhaps we can take some proactive measures that can help control the wind that moves tons of blowing and drifting snow before it reaches the roadways.

Back in 1998, officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Minnesota's Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the Minnesota Department of Transportation entered into a memorandum of understanding that allowed the involved governmental entities to collaborate in promoting the planting of living snow fences along Minnesota highways.

Due to the passage of the 2008 farm bill, the original memorandum of understanding was updated on Sept. 5, 2008.

Under the agreement, eligible farmland owners can enroll qualifying acres into the Conservation Reserve Program and receive 10 to 15 years of annual rental payments from USDA's Farm Service Agency. Landowners will also receive cost-share assistance to cover approximately 90 percent of the cost of installing the living snow fence.

Landowners can also receive annual compensation from MnDOT. The compensation is for the inconvenience and lost efficiency of having to farm around a living snow fence.

To ensure the fence remains healthy and vigorous, enabling it to perform its intended function, landowners also receive annual compensation for proper growth and maintenance.

No long-term easements will be required to participate in the program, but MnDOT prefers 15-year agreements.

Living snow fences are typically planted about 150 to 300 feet from the highway right of way. Shrubs, such as dogwoods and lilacs, are commonly used for this type of practice.

The program will be offered on an as-needed basis. Once a specific site on a state highway is identified as a problem area, a work group representative will attempt to contact the landowners.

A recent survey of blowing and drifting snow problem areas revealed 3,841 snow traps along 1,233 miles of MnDOT-maintained highways.

According to the Minnesota Division of Emergency Management, the natural disaster claiming the most lives in Minnesota is winter weather.

A snow-related study of vehicle crashes during the years 1995 to 2005 revealed 83,541 total accidents, including 441 fatalities. The same study found that 64 fatalities and 9,085 accidents were the direct result of blowing snow within identified snow trap areas.

Another study of living snow fences installed between 1996 and 2004 found a crash reduction number ranging from 10 to 25 percent. As these living snow fences grow to maturity, it is anticipated that the number of crashes will decline further.

Living snow fences allow for better use of taxpayer money since the need for snow plowing is reduced.

Annually, Minnesota taxpayers spend approximately $100 million in snow removal costs. MnDOT's portion of those costs averages about $41 million.

A recently completed cost analysis compared the price of snow removal for roads with and without living snow fences. The analysis found that on the average, the cost-benefit ratio of installing a living snow fence is about 17:1 -- a $17 return for every program dollar spent.

To learn more about the CRP living snow fence practice and the special incentives being offered by MnDOT, stop in or call your USDA Service Center. Your local Soil and water conservation district office can also assist landowners with the necessary design work and materials.

USDA releases latest results of farm worker survey

According to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 46,000 hired workers on farms in the Lake Region (Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin) during the week of Jan. 10-16.

Farm operators paid their hired workers an average wage rate of $11.22 per hour during the survey week, up 20 cents from January 2009.

The number of hours worked averaged 33.8 for hired workers during the survey week, down slightly from 34.0 hours in January 2009.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.