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Why are people mad at farmers?

"I like trees, and respect other people who like trees. Tree people are stalwart." -- William Safire. I used those lines from Safire, the late, great columnist/speechwriter/language maven, in a blog I wrote this summer about a Minnesota ranch fam...

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Nick Nelson, Agweek
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"I like trees, and respect other people who like trees. Tree people are stalwart."

- William Safire.

I used those lines from Safire, the late, great columnist/speechwriter/language maven, in a blog I wrote this summer about a Minnesota ranch family that values trees. The entry drew far more attention than any other blog item I've written. No surprise there: a lot of people care about trees. Like the conservative/libertarian Safire, I'm one of them. Not at all a tree-hugging extremist, just a guy who likes trees.

I think of the Safire quote every time I see piles of ripped-up trees where a shelterbelt once stood. It's a common sight across the Upper Midwest. Sometimes the old trees are replaced with a new planting; more often they're not.

Yeah, I get that the trees, most of 'em anyway, were at the end of their useful life. Removing them makes both economic and agronomic sense; they should come out.

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I also get that farming practices have changed. There are new and better ways of farming, new and bigger farm equipment that's cramped by shelterbelts. Strictly from an agronomic viewpoint, not every aging shelterbelt needs to be replanted. (Or so it seems to me. Some experts argue that shelterbelts create useful "microclimates" and almost always should be replaced.)

Most Americans understand why the old trees are coming out. They may be indifferent to new ways of farming and bigger farm equipment, but they realize trees age and die. What people don't like - what upsets many of them - is the ripped-up trees aren't being replaced with young ones.

At a recent farm show, one of the speakers, very pro-farmer, stressed producers should view shelterbelt replacement as "a photo op." Putting in new trees can help to convince the public that farmers really do care about the environment, he said.

He's right.

Too important to lose

Nobody likes to be told how to do their jobs. Journalists say, don't tell me how to write my story. Preachers say, don't tell me what to put in my sermon. Plumbers say, don't tell me how to fix these broken pipes.

Well, I'm not smart enough to tell farmers how to run their farms, nor foolish enough to try. But I will say this: Removing a shelterbelt - and not planting a new one - irks and alienates many Americans. Right or wrong, logical or not, it makes them mad.

Farmers often complain that society in general is disconnected from what they do. Society doesn't understand or appreciate us, they say. There are many reasons for that disconnect. But lost shelterbelts are high on the list, at least in the Upper Midwest.

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Removing aging shelterbelts may very well be economic and agronomic wins. But ask yourself whether failing to replace with new trees them would be a public relations loss - and remind yourself that if you lose the battle often enough, you risk losing everything else.

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