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Breaking Down The Windbreaks

It’s common to hear the chainsaws buzzing this time of year, as the untold number of residents in this province who heat with wood at least some of the time go about gathering, stacking and splitting their winter supply.

It’s hard to imagine a more annoying sound than these saws cutting through the afternoon’s calm, but their function contributes to a much more pleasant aftermath – the warmth of a crackling winter fire. In addition to the esthetics, there is the practical matter of reduced energy costs – not counting the labour involved with the gathering.

And to the extent that these wood gatherers are cleaning up deadfall, diseased or dying trees, in various woodlots around the province, they provide a service that others can at least appreciate, if not directly enjoy.

Chainsaws are also at work in woodlots harvesting trees for lumber in a growing number of locations. Agro-forestry and sustainable woodlot management is becoming a viable farm and rural enterprise as evidenced by the participants in the province’s agro-woodlot programs. These programs, which combine extension support with financial incentives for landowners to manage their wooded areas differently, are opening the door to on-farm diversification in a way that supports rural families, while protecting the landscape.

The same can’t be said for the sights and sounds of bulldozers, also working feverishly in the autumn months, tearing out long rows of shelter belts in various locations around the province. In most cases, these are mature stands that are being torn out by the roots, piled, burned and buried. Expediency has overruled any thought of salvaging the wood from these stands, either for lumber or fuel.

Aside from the sheer wastefulness of this practice, there is the bigger question of why these shelter belts are being removed in the first place.

Landowners will argue the trees get in the way of the larger farm equipment and efficient farming practices. These rows of trees, some of which date back decades, are accused of competing with crops for nutrients and moisture, and preventing drainage. And there are those pesky buffer zones the federal government implemented – but has never really enforced – that require farmers to avoid spraying too close to trees and wetlands by up to 15 metres.

Their removal may make it easier for farmers to cover their land with modern farm equipment, but it is questionable that that equates with more profitable farming or that it contributes to sustainability.

Studies have shown that even after taking into account the land, nutrients and water shelter belts take away from annual crops, these rows of trees can increase crop yields by 3.5 to 6.5 per cent. That is in addition to their longer-term value of reducing soil erosion and providing a sheltered microclimate that improves crop performance.

Can a handful of extra acres make up for a yield penalty of 3.5 per cent? How much additional fertilizer is required to make up for organic matter that has blown away?

Although few farmers today can remember the dust bowl “dirty thirties,” these trees were put there for a reason, with support from the public purse, to help farmers control soil erosion that was threatening the very future of farming on the Prairies. Conservation tillage has gone a long way towards mitigating that risk. But parts of this province have wicked dust storms almost annually. It’s not uncommon to see the snow in roadside ditches blackened by soil that has drifted off the fields during the winter.

Some of the trees being torn up this fall are in municipalities that received a portion of $1.9 million in emergency disaster assistance to help clean out ditches plugged by eroded soil after a particularly windy weekend in early May 2008.

Perhaps you could argue that the value of free trees is only a fraction of the cost of establishing a shelter belt, but those trees are being provided because farmers convinced governments shelter belts were a good idea. So the public is helping to plant these trees, and the public is helping pay the cost of cleaning up the mess made by dust storms, a mess that is mitigated at least in part when shelter belts are left in place.

Yet as things are now, the public has no say in if, when or how these shelter belts are erased. In many respects, farmers should be grateful the provincial government has virtually turned a blind eye to this issue. No one is even tracking how many miles of shelter belts are levelled annually; if they were, things might change in a hurry.

But one suspects that day is coming, just as it has now arrived for on-farm drainage, manure management and stubble burning.

Should farmers be required to obtain a permit before they start removing trees?

We know how most farmers would answer that question. But ultimately it comes down to whether governments believe there is any other choice. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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