Nobody wants to buy a pig in a poke. That’s especially true when it comes to farmers who stake a livelihood on the farming practices they use. Adopting a new practice that sounds great but ultimately doesn’t work can spell bankruptcy and end life on the land for a family.
For more than a century windbreaks, sometimes called shelterbelts, have been favored as a land-conservation practice. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 attempted to encourage planting of trees in exchange for land in the west. Franklin Roosevelt advocated planting, “a million little trees” in his first inaugural address in 1933. He followed that with an executive order in 1934 that led to the planting of shelterbelts to combat the drought and soil erosion that caused “Dust Bowl” conditions in the United States during the Great Depression.
Finding information is easy regarding how to grow shelterbelts, hedgerows, living snow fences or vegetated environmental buffers – all types of windbreaks. But what’s important is what farmers, the folks who own land and assume the risk of planting a windbreak, think about the practice. There have been formal studies asking farmers about their experiences with windbreaks. But those studies were spread across decades, schools and government agencies. About the only practical way most folks could find information regarding farmer experience with windbreaks was to ask another farmer who had a windbreak.
But that changed this year when a new paper was released entitled, “Windbreaks in the United States: A systematic review of producer-reported benefits, challenges, management activities and drivers of adoption,” created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agroforestry Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. It brings together studies done all across the nation since 1949 to give a clear view of what farmers who have windbreaks have experienced.
Matt Smith is a research ecologist at the National Agroforestry Center; he’s lead author of the paper.
“Understanding the benefits and challenges of windbreaks is of critical importance to producers who may be considering adding windbreaks to their land or producers who may have windbreaks in need of renovation or replacement,” he said. “To fully understand the drivers leading to windbreak use or removal, our team at the USDA’s National Agroforestry Center went to the experts – the producers themselves. By synthesizing producer opinions about windbreak benefits and challenges from the first windbreak survey study in 1949 through 2020, we were able to paint a more-complete picture of windbreak adoption in the United States. Ultimately we hope this information can be used by producers and natural-resource professionals to more effectively assess where windbreak implementation makes the most economic and environmental sense.”
Direct farmer input to the studies aggregated in the paper led to numerous conclusions.
Producers most value windbreaks for indirect economic benefits to agriculture – soil-erosion control, livestock protection, wind protection and wind control.
Direct agricultural benefits are valued, such as increased crop and livestock production.
Intrinsic values include aesthetics and wildlife habitat.
Overall satisfaction of windbreaks among producers ranged from 72 percent to 99 percent.
“Most people plant windbreaks for conservation, to protect soil or provide wildlife habitat,” said Rich Straight of the National Agroforestry Center, paper co-author. “They also use windbreaks to protect their livestock or wind-sensitive crops like lettuce and cherries. But a windbreak can also be a direct source of income if it includes fruit or nut trees and shrubs, or creates a shady environment to grow other shade-loving crops like mushrooms or woodland wildflowers.”
There are many reasons to incorporate windbreaks into an overall blend of agricultural techniques on a given farm. But when it comes to windbreaks nobody needs to buy a pig in a poke anymore. Information on the experience of farmers who planted them is now available for all. Visit doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2020.103032 to read the full report.
Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.