By :Woody Woodruff, ISA Conservation Association
Twenty or thirty years ago it wasn’t uncommon to see a farm that had hedge rows that formed windbreaks around every fifty to one hundred acre field. Most of these windbreaks were a product of the dust bowl era. The soils became so degraded that the topsoil was easily blown off the farms and carried for counties before resting back to the ground. It was easy to see the benefit of windbreaks when you were physically suffering from the effects of the dust bowl. Today, the last of the windbreaks are being removed to grow more crops. It seems that the memory of the dust bowl era has all but been erased. Well almost all. No, I am not old enough to have been raised during the dust bowl days. But I have been exposed to the need for windbreaks when I served in the Peace Corps in Mauritania, West Africa. Mauritania is part of the Saharan region. The wind would cause dust storms that kept dust in the air for days. The wind was also good at evaporating precious moisture. The windbreaks gave villagers a chance to grow crops where that chance might not exist without them. The windbreaks also worked as a living fence to keep livestock out of the farm fields. So one of the first things that I did in rural Mauritania was start tree nurseries in each of the villages. After the trees reached a good size the farmers transplanted them around the boarders of their fields.
When I returned home to the family farm I found that the USDA service center had a program that helps farmers establish wind breaks using the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). That program still exists today. You can sign up your windbreak at your local Farm Service Agency. Field windbreaks are one of the most important conservation practices in areas not only like Mauritania, with flat sandy soil, but also Illinois, with its flat organic topsoil. Windbreaks will protect these soil types from blowing or drying out by ten times the height of the trees being used. This year my windbreaks made a big difference in protecting my winter wheat from extended exposure to extreme cold. When you reach that distance away from the windbreaks protection zone you can see a marked difference in the wheat surviving the harsh winter. I have a shelter-belt windbreak planted around my homestead which adds comfort and energy savings. A good windbreak can reduce home heating costs by ten to fifteen percent. The same shelter-belt helps to slow the drifting snow in my driveway. On a border between fields the windbreak protects against chemical drifting from one type of crop to another. One thing to remember is not to plant a windbreak on the south side of a road too close to that road. I am always adding salt to my north road because the shade of the pine trees protects the snow and ice from melting. Also, watch not to plant too close to the power lines. The electric companies have enough to do without having to keep your windbreak trimmed away from the power lines.
Every windbreak that I have planted over the years has been a little different in the mix. From white pine and Norway spruce to red pine and silky dogwood. In some of my windbreaks I have added rows with smaller trees and shrubs. The shrubs have been a great addition providing habitat for wildlife. These windbreaks become corridors between larger blocks of habitat. These corridors give the added benefit of making it safer for animals to travel between home and food compared to an open field or country road. I am always seeing something new in the windbreaks every year. I have added rows of arrow wood and cherrystone dogwood, cottonwood, bald cypress and cedar. The last windbreak that I established had a less dense pattern of trees giving some room to native flowering forb mixes to attract pollinators to the field. The combination of all the different types of windbreaks I have planted is adding biodiversity to the farm. Biodiversity in a soil, on a field, at a farm, keeps a balance in that agro-ecosystem. Windbreaks give a permanent cover that is not disturbed from season to season. There is something to be said about seeing rows of green pines, spruces, and cedars in the dead of winter to boost your mental health. That observation is from the inside of my house. Imagine all the different kinds of wildlife and the fields of bare soil that benefit from an oasis of trees blocking the wind. Where would you have a better chance of surviving the elements? Windbreaks are just one of those great conservation practices that I have invested in on my farming operation, and they have paid off in so many different ways.