I was out at the International Peace Gardens yesterday for a meeting. It takes three hours each way, but it was a lovely drive except for blowing snow. “Blowing snow?” you say. “The wind was only 20 kilometres per hour.”
That is true, but along our route down Highway 2, farmers were clearing the last of the shelterbelts from their land. You could see the downed trees stacked up waiting for removal, leaving he land embarrassingly naked for miles and miles. The empty fields presented no barrier to stop the wind. It drifted across the highway, like wraiths invading on the air, polishing the surface and obscuring vision.
Charlie Thomsen who was with me and who has been making this trip for many years says at one time it was very beautiful with little bluffs along the drive and trees on either side of the road. You can still see vestiges of this from time to time. The trees gentle the landscape and shelter the road and the homes the brush often surrounds.
I am imagining that much of the land clearing is being done by the factory farmers who are trying to maximize profit. Perhaps they don’t remember the dust bowl of the 30s, when, with no wind breaks, topsoil went sailing in the dry winds that swept across the newly ploughed prairies, making things even worse in the Depression.
That is why the government of the day developed the PRFA or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration which was established in 1935. It tackled issues such as water preservation systems and the planting of trees as shelter belts. For years they funded the cost of doing so. That program was ended in 2013 and much of the good work it did in providing seedlings for the planting of shelter belts is being forgotten and abandoned as the land is cleared again by folks who misunderstand the danger of what they are doing.
Take a look at what Prof. Bill Remphry, Department of Plant Science at the University of Manitoba, has to say about shelterbelts. https://www.umanitoba.ca/afs/fiw/040923.html. Bill’s piece says it all, but we should all take careful note when he comments, ” Shelterbelts can increase crop yields by up to 45% depending on the crop and the environmental conditions present”. He goes on to explain that this is due in part to positive changes in the microclimate, but also in creating homes for a population of wildlife.
This was backed up by French researcher Louise Bellet, who in speaking to the Manitoba Conservation Districts Association annual conference in January 2014, said, “The benefits to agriculture in shade, snow capture and erosion control are well understood, but their value in terms of wildlife and pollinator habitat, water purification and nutrient management, as well as overall biodiversity, appear to get short shrift.” She continued, “In Europe, we plant shelterbelts for biodiversity conservation. That’s the main thing.”
This should sound a warning to all those who are anxious to remove every blessed tree. Instead of improving yield, you may actually be decreasing your crop production in the name of “efficiency”. There is a compelling case to me made for the role of shelterbelts in moisture retention. It simply isn’t true that there is a net loss of water and nutrition to trees. They help maintain balance in the soil, taking up water, but returning it to the atmosphere along with oxygen through expiration. Nutrients are returned with the shedding of their leaves in fall. More, shelterbelts trap snow on the land, contributing moisture in springtime. Shelterbelts also reduce wind damage to growing crops.
And of course, there is the “minor” issue of people dying on the snow-blinded roads in winter — some of them the very people or family members of those who so willfully removed the trees in the first place.
Just as with the loss of milkweed due to the spraying of GMO crops, mistaken agricultural practices can have many unintended results. The depopulation of monarch butterflies may not seem like much to the busy farmers dealing with life’s everyday realities of making a living, but perhaps their loss should be viewed more as the canary in the mine; a signal that death is stalking and that we should take note.
There are newer and better methods of improving crop yield. Husband nature. Mould it and work with it — not against it. It’s a wondrful partnership if we respect the rules.