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Published February 17, 2014, 10:17 AM

Conservation officials recommend windbreaks

Curtis Zerface remembers when farmers routinely planted windbreaks to protect their fields. But times and farming practices have changed. Reflecting the regionwide trend, no windbreaks were planted in North Dakota’s Traill County in 2012 or 2013, and interest in them remains negligible this spring, says Zerface, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s district conservationist for the county.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Curtis Zerface remembers when farmers routinely planted windbreaks to protect their fields.

But times and farming practices have changed. Reflecting the regionwide trend, no windbreaks were planted in North Dakota’s Traill County in 2012 or 2013, and interest in them remains negligible this spring, says Zerface, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s district conservationist for the county.

Nonetheless, Zerface and other area conservation officials have this message for farmers and other landlords: Windbreaks still can play a useful role — and now is the time to start working with your local NRCS office to make sure trees are planted later this year.

“Let us know if you’re interested,” Zerface says.

The NRCS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides farmers and ranchers with technical and financial assistance to make conservation-minded improvements to their land. For generations, windbreaks (rows of trees that protect fields) and shelterbelts (rows of trees that protect houses and other buildings) have helped reduce soil erosion in fields, provide wildlife habitat and shield farmsteads in the Upper Midwest.

Advocates of windbreaks still say they have value by affecting wind speeds and creating “microclimates” that improve crop yields.

Still, changes in farming practices, including bigger farm equipment and the increased popularity of no-till farming, have steadily reduced interest in planting trees. Though some farmers and other property owners continue to plant trees to protect farmsteads and enhance wildlife habitat, their use as windbreaks is increasingly rare, Zerface says.

“There just isn’t the interest anymore. We’d like to start changing that,” he says.

Sales slump

Sales at the Lincoln-Oakes Nursery in Bismarck, N.D., reflect windbreaks’ declining popularity.

The nursery, owned and operated by the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts, sells trees to conservation districts across much of the Midwest.

In 2002, the Bismarck nursery sold about 5 million trees. The number fell steadily to about 1.5 million in 2013, with sales so far this year down from the same time a year ago, says Brian Johnston, executive director and CEO of the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts.

He notes at least one reason for optimism: In January, the North Dakota Industrial Commission approved a $1.8 million grant to the state Association of Soil Conservation Districts for a statewide tree-planting initiative.

“We’re hoping that will lead to more interest,” he says.

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