Removing shelterbelts

trees for shelterbelts

The maintenance of shelterbelts on agricultural land actually increases yield.


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. 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.


19 thoughts on “Removing shelterbelts

  1. says:

    Thanks Dorothy for your timely and wise article! When will we humans learn to work with nature, instead of trying to tame it. It makes me so sad. I was raised on a Manitoba farm, and the bluffs were a natural part of our surroundings. I am thoroughly enjoying all the articles from The Gardening Canuck. Keep up the great work!


    Original Message —– From: The Gardening Canuck To: Sent: Sunday, March 09, 2014 6:13 PM Subject: [New post] Removing shelterbelts

    Dorothy Dobbie posted: ” 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”

  2. Charmaine Lyons says:

    Shelter belts and Tall Grass Prairie are the quiet, unknown supporters to help in sustaining our agriculture and wildlife. Too often these are seen as useless, vast fields of wasted land by the uneducated eye. It’s our job to educate others on the necessity and importance of these areas. I know. I was one of the uneducated. Now I see the land through a different eye and with a different perspective.

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Joan Cohen says:

    May I please have second world rights to this piece for Lifestyles? The fluff piece can wait, if necessary. Shelterbelts are Manitoba, part of what moves us when we go driving out in the country. Glad you got back safely.


  4. Pierre Bedard says:

    I am simply horrified!

  5. Shirley Bergen says:

    A timely and needed piece. I hope it is repeated in many agricultural publications. Old caragana hedges are left on unused farmsteads. Their seed production is prolific but spread far and wide. Forethought to keep trees would be wonderful for birdlife as well as snow and moisture. Thanks for this.

    • Thank you, Shirley. I was reminded by a reader however, that the dust bowl syndrome is unlikely to be repeated today thanks to better farming methods. However, even he admitted the dangers to travelers on exposed highways.

  6. I had no idea this was happening. Both short-sighted and just plain stupid ( a word I seldom use.) Yet one more argument against factory farming. Thanks for writing this.

  7. Gary Lund says:

    Appalling. I had been hoping there would be more shelterbelts on the Prairies for their beauty as well as their practical benefits. Are farm managers not attending agricultural college anymore? Global warming may well bring long, severe droughts to the region; all the more need to maintain shelterbelts, and continue the PFRA shelterbelt program and related research and education.

    A fitting quote: “Managers [or corporate CEOs] know the price of everything and value of nothing.”

  8. Alain says:

    It is very sad. Especially when you consider how the short term gain for the farmer is so slight compared to the damage done to all of us.

  9. Barb says:

    Horray, Horray. This is the best article on all the shelterbelts that are being rooted up and nothing is being replanted. We have the same mess where we live and the wind now howls across the barren land like it will never get to blow again. We have many stories. Some places in the winter you cannot see everyday for blowing snow. I passed this article on to my friends. You are so right, 20 mph wind and its blowing and roads are icy. There is no protection at all. No conservation methods. Ugh. All for the big buck!

  10. In September of 2012, the Canada-U.S. Windbreak Conference was held at the Interpretive Centre at the International Peace Garden.

    During the meeting, it was refreshing to hear. “Planting trees to establish or rejuvenate a windbreak isn’t the backbreaking work it once was. The hardest part just might be convincing farmers they need to do it.”

    Coming from an agricultural community I can appreciate that shelter belts are still an important part of conservation agriculture and realize that No-till alone can’t do it all .

    Sure, there have been great advances in minimum tillage technology allowing to help prevent soil erosion. But let’s face it isn’t that the job that shelter belts once held?

    Trees play other significant roles in the farm landscape, they act as filters for air pollution and wetlands, provide homes to crop pollinators and provide protection from the wind. Importantly they can also provide a second income.

    Sadly, though high crop prices have increased the temptation to rip out trees in favour of growing more bushels. From my view, I believe many farm producers do not know which species are best suited for the shelter belt or they think shelter belts are no longer necessary.

    Here is a link to an interesting article about Shelter Belts and Windbreaks


    • Richard Warkentin says:

      Hello Doug,
      I was at the conference in 2012, and participated in the discussion. I am located in southern Manitoba, and am promoting the keeping of shelterbelts for all the benefits they provide. I am looking at different options for renovation.

      Richard Warkentin Stanley Soil Management Association
      204 362-0352

  11. Dorothy: You remind me of the wizard of tree-oz, the foundations of tree growth that allow children to learn through what they plant. Thanks.
    The whirling and dance of the wind swept highways and farm corridors across Canada seem to be the best way for God to get our attention. My critical thinking and mindfulness of sustaining healthy tree scapes, greener forests, and urban shelterbelts turn back to reflecting upon the growth of our tree nurseries: firefighter’s country wide put their life on the line fighting the trail of tree blazes, while we grapple with how to re-grow these barren landscapes for future generations with tree seedlings that thrive and survive. It is a lesson worth fundraising for all of us only so that we reap from what we continue to knowledgeably plant and appreciate. You’re amazing. Thanks. I’m Ontario grown. abb

  12. Gaill says:

    I farm in the US, specifically Wisconsin, where dairy reigned king for decades but is now locally challenged by corn/bean farming and suburban development. Due to our local topography we don’t have many shelter belts in fields, but we used to have many fence rows, which are now being removed to make way for more efficient, larger equipment. This is an unfortunate result of modern efficiencies move to wider equipment, and while I maintain fence rows, I understand the farmers who remove them.

    If states/provinces want shelter belts to remain they will just have to provide economic incentives to farmers to keep them, it is unfortunately that simple. Down here the highway department erects snow fence barriers in farm fields in the fall to catch snow and removes them in spring. Down in Iowa the highway department began planting living wind breaks along the edge of the road right-of-way for the same purpose.

    Farming technology is rapidly changing to address the benefits of increasing organic matter to retain water, reduce erosion and increase crop yield. Individual farmers are even using no-till with alternate year strip planting (a strip being 12″wide) to increase organic matter and build the soil.

    And those ‘factory farmers’ you label are likely multi-generational family farmers who are trying to find ways to give the youngest generation a life on the farm that offers them some of the benefits their city dwelling peers enjoy: a good wage; a work week that doesn’t include 100 hours of hard, physical work; and time off to enjoy living.

    • Walden Pond says:

      How much more is really produced by removing shelter belts or hedgerows? Rarely are they more than 10 feet wide around where I live. It’s just greed getting involved like in every other aspect of our modern lives. The all mighty dollar rules and the natural environment must pay.

  13. Richard Warkentin says:

    I am working on an awareness campaign on the value of shelterbelts to the rural community. I am working with a not-for-profit organization called Stanley Soil Management Association based out of the Winkler-Morden area in southern Manitoba. I am looking for ideas to promote awareness.


    Richard Warkentin 204 362-0352

  14. laughlinds says:

    Reblogged this on Laughlin Design Associates | Salt Lake City UT | and commented:
    Wonderful article on shelter belts!

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