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It's a Living Snow Fence kind of winter

At snowplow cuts through a ridge of snow on Highway 28. There is no ridge caused by drifting in the area of the plow thanks to a Living Snow Fence. Photo courtesy SCSWCD.

There probably can't be a better time than the dead of a blustery Minnesota winter to promote the use of Living Snow Fences in rural areas of Stevens County.

And recently, Stevens County Soil and Water Conservation and the Minnesota Department of Transportation teamed up to make the offer to land owners fairly lucrative.

The Living Snow Fence program began more than 10 years ago and encourages land owners in rural areas along roadways to plant rows of trees, shrubs and native grasses to catch snow and help keep roads clear.

But it's difficult to convince farmers to take any land out of production, so now the SWCD and MnDOT are attempting to make it a deal they can't refuse.

Previously, farmers would get CRP payments for the land taken out of production, and they had to kick in a little money to pay for the plants in the fence. Now, they get the CRP money, MnDOT pays for all the plants, SWCD provides the labor to plant, and the farmers also receive a 20-cent per foot maintenance fee. Once the plants and grasses are established, there's very little maintenance needed, said Ron Feigum, SWCD District Technician.

Feigum estimated Living Snow Fence payments between $170 and $300 per acre.

"It's a pretty lucrative thing to get into," Feigum said.

"It's better than cash rent," said SWCD Administrator Matt Solemsaas.

This winter has provided prime examples of why the program needs more land owners to sign up, Solemsaas said.

Snowfall has been substantial and steady, and the topography and land uses in Minnesota leave it susceptible to blowing and drifting. The program addresses public safety issues and improves wildlife habitat while also helping to mitigate significant economic losses that come with road closures, he said.

MnDOT estimated that closing Minnesota's transportation corridors for a 24 hour period results in $118 million of unrecoverable losses in wages and salaries, taxes and retail sales.

Dennis Garoutte, of rural Chokio, had a Living Snow Fence installed on his property last year. His three-quarter of a mile fence takes about 10 acres out of production but he's pleased with the results.

"It pays pretty good, that's the main thing," Garoutte said.

The stretch of Highway 28 along Garoutte's property, which is two miles west of Chokio, has had less drifting this year and it likely will improve more as the plants mature. The two-year-old fence has captured a ridge of snow that is three to four feet high, he said.

"It's made a big difference so far," said Garoutte, who added that he's seen many more pheasants on his property since the fence was installed.

"There are quite a few places between (his home) and Chokio that get drifted in pretty good, and I think this would help," he said.

Feigum said the condition of the road along Garoutte's property before and after the fence installation "is like night and day. It's so much better."

Solemsaas said he understands farmers' reluctance to sign up for the program. But he stressed that while it takes land out of production, they receive good payments and it does not take control of the property out of their hands.

"It's really a public safety issue," Solemsaas said. "We're not trying to take anything out of production. They're giving up a few hundred feet but they're going to get paid."