Saplings between crops

Natural windbreaks. Planting spruce and cedar between crops protects the plants, reduces soil erosion and contributes to higher yields.

By Allan Britnell

That good fences make good neighbours is a commonly held truism, but fences can also be good for the environment, particularly when they are made from trees. In southwestern Ontario, the County of Wellington has initiated a number of innovative programs that incorporate so-called living fences to do everything from boosting crop yields for local farmers to reducing the amount of ploughing and road salt needed to keep winter roads safe.

The Trees for Mapleton project, for example, has set an ambitious goal of trying to protect every farm surrounding the town of 12,000 with natural windbreaks. With mature spruce and cedars standing in rows spaced about 150 metres apart, winds don’t wick water from the soil or batter the delicate plants growing between them. As a result, such protected fields have crop yields as much as 30 percent greater than those of unsheltered fields.

Windbreaks also reduce topsoil erosion and even help farmers save money by keeping their homes and barns warm; an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada study on heating found that natural windbreaks reduced winter farmhouse hydro bills by 25 percent.

“We’re helping people to understand the ecological value of having trees on a farm,” says project chair, Paul Day.

Another county project, the Living Snow Fence, provides landowners with a cash incentive – for every kilometre of land, farmers are paid $3,625 over the course of 10 years – to allow cedars to be planted at the edge of their property along drift-prone roadways. Keeping the snow off roads means less-frequent ploughing and reduces the amount of salt that needs to be used on roads. Road salt is a major environmental hazard; it scalds roadside vegetation, poisons birds, encourages large mammals to sip from pools of saline water at the edge of the road and can be lethal for an array of aquatic wildlife when spring runoff washes it into waterways.

Even with the expense of raising and planting the trees and providing the cash incentive to landowners, county planners estimate that the program will pay for itself within three years by eliminating the cost of annually installing and removing manufactured snow fences. (One U.S. study found that living snow fences result in a $17 savings for every dollar spent.)

Both projects are part of the County of Wellington’s larger Green Legacy Programme, an initiative launched in 2004 to celebrate the region’s 150th anniversary and originally envisioned as a one-year program to plant 150,000 trees across the 2,600-square-kilometre region. The county-funded program proved so popular it has continued every year since, culminating in a ceremony held this October at the Wellington County Museum and Archives, where the one-millionth tree was planted.