Cornstalks and snow banks: MnDOT program effective, but unpopular

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Thick lines of cornstalks can help keep snow-blown rural roads open in the winter. But getting farmers on board with the program is proving difficult.

Here's what MnDOT wants, and why it's unappealing to farmers.

Normally, farmers cut down the entire field of corn during the fall harvest.

The agency, however, is asking farmers with corn crops to leave a section of unharvested, uncut corn along roadways susceptible to collecting blown snow.

Why? That leftover section – anywhere from six to 16 rows long – acts as a wind fence during the winter, collecting snow that would otherwise gust onto roadways, according to a Minnesota Department of Transportation release.

The reduced snow build-up also dramatically lowers the cost of highway maintenance, and the "fence" provides a yellow point of reference for drivers, increasing visibility against the all-white landscape. Research by MnDOT has shown the severity of injuries on curves protected by corn fences is decreased by 40 percent.

MnDOT even incentivizes leaving up the cornstalk fences by offering to pay above-market rates for the spring crop.

But over the last 15 years, MnDOT has struggled to get farmers participating in the Living Snow Fences program.

Last winter, just 20 farmers left their corn standing, protecting only 7 miles of state roads – despite MnDOT having identified 3,700 drift-prone areas, the Star Tribune reports.

The reason for such low participation appears to mainly be because it's inconvenient.

The average corn row fence is just a quarter-mile long and 1.2 acres – a fraction of the total size of the cornfield on which it sits.

Most farmers have been unwilling to trot out their combines in the spring to take down the stalks; and the other option, picking them by hand, is equally as unappealing, Dan Gullickson, a MnDOT forester who coordinates the snow fence program, told the Star Tribune.

“Our No. 1 goal [was] to have farmers plant shrub rows and leave them in for 10 to 15 years,” Gary Wyatt, a University of Minnesota, Mankato professor told The Farmer Magazine. "But with high land values and corn and soybean prices, not a lot of farmers are interested in doing that.”

Pilot program poses potential solution

Last year, a pilot project by the University of Minnesota Extension program sought to solve the problem with volunteers handpicking corn.

The program, which is expanding statewide this winter, looks to supplement farmer stipends with volunteer labor from 4-H and Future Farmers of America groups to create a model where corn fences make financial sense for growers.

Farmers were paired with groups such as 4-H and FFA chapters in Nicollet, LeSueur and Renville counties, the Star Tribune reported, with volunteers then handpicking the corn in the spring. In exchange, the farmer can make a donation to the nonprofit. MnDOT said the average donation during the pilot was $523 per acre.

“This is a great example of the rural community coming together and making a difference during the winter driving season,” Gullickson said in a statement. “We get the benefit of snow control and FFA and 4-H members made a big difference in reducing our costs and ultimately helping people get safely to their destinations."

Effective corn fences have the potential to save MnDOT a lot of money. Pushing back snowdrifts along one specific road without standing corn rows requires blowers and dozers, and can cost more than $3,700, MnDOT said.

Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas are among the 17 states with living snow fence programs, according to a 2009 study by the State University of New York, Syracuse. The study found that funding is generally the major limiting factor on the effectiveness of programs.

“We’ve had a challenging winter with the cold, wind and accumulating snowfalls. There’s lots of corn in Minnesota and if we can work with more farmers, extension offices and FFA and 4-H groups, there could be more standing corn rows out there,” Gullickson said. “We appreciate the kids who gave of their time and the landowners who participate.”

Benefits of living snow fences

MnDOT and the University of Minnesota list a number of benefits for living snow fences:

  • Prevent big snow drifts that lead to stranded motorists
  • Improve driver visibility and reduce vehicle accidents
  • Reduce use of public money by reducing plow time
  • Lessen our impact on the environment with less salt use, fewer truck trips and less fuel consumption
  • Reduce shipping delays for goods and services
  • Increase crop yields by 10 percent or more
  • Control soil erosion and reduce spring flooding
  • Serve as visual clues to help drivers find their way
  • Less salt application
  • Shows farmer leadership and community service

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