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Homeland–Spring 2017: Growing Value: Planting trees adds value to property

Landowners planning to install field windbreaks should first seek the guidance of local resources to determine soil type, ideal species, installation procedures, and maintenance. Photo courtesy Derek Lowstuter.

Few people value trees more than those who live on the wind-swept prairies without them. Planting trees was often one of the first tasks pioneers completed, watering them carefully, trying to protect them from marauding wildlife and coaxing them into an asset that could provide shade, hold up a swing, block the wind, and at the end of its life, give warmth. Trees today are no less valued, and adding trees for both ornamental and windbreak purposes can add value to any property, if it's done properly.

Just as landscaping around a more urban setting lends aesthetic appeal and value to homes, trees add value to agricultural properties. Derek Lowstuter, acting stewardship manager and forest restoration specialist with the North Dakota Forest Service maintains that properties with established landscaping, such as windbreaks and shelterbelts, can allow those properties to sell up to 20 percent higher than those without.

On agricultural properties, a lot of the value of the windbreak can come from reducing wind speed. This can equate to less storm damage and flooding, drought mitigated by the forest canopy, and additional storage of nutrients and water. Perhaps more directly, property owners can benefit from reduced heating and cooling costs in their homes and shops. In the Plains states, Lowstuter explains, the prevailing wind causes a low-pressure situation outside the home and pulls the warm air out of the building. A properly designed windbreak that is efficient in reducing wind speed can cut energy costs by up to one-third, an enviable figure especially during long Plains states winters.

Deciduous trees on the south side of a home, shop, or livestock yard benefit the rural property through providing shade in the summer and allowing sunlight in the winter. This can translate to reduced heat stress on livestock in the summer months and reduced cold stress in the winter. Lowstuter said numerous studies tout these benefits and stockmen agree that reduced stress and higher gains translates directly to their operation's bottom line.

Windbreaks are also excellent noise and odor barriers, a benefit to those operating cattle or hog feeding operations. This value translates to maintained property values and good public relations with those who frequent the area.

Lowstuter, who is a graduate of Colorado State University, suggests seeking the guidance of forest stewardship programs, arborists, or conservation districts.

"It's best to contact the local representative of the forest stewardship program to learn not only how to go about planning and installing a windbreak but also maintaining it over time," he said. "Most states have cost share programs or other financial assistance programs to help offset the cost of installing a windbreak."

In the years following the Dust Bowl, the federal government identified a need to combat erosion and started experimental forests that utilized seeds from climates similar to their region. The Denbigh experimental forest in North Dakota was one of these. Now, the Towner State Nursery is still utilizing trees and seeds that are second and third generation from the original trees. Aside from the historical appeal, these seeds are valued for their hardiness and ability to withstand harsh winters.

The Towner State Nursery has been serving rural landowners and soil conservation districts in the Plains states as a part of the North Dakota Forest Service since 1951. As a conservation nursery, Towner grows a selection of bare root conifer trees that are both hardy and popular in the Plains states, including Colorado, the Dakotas, Nebraska.

Towner is situated on 160 acres in Towner, North Dakota, and this year will have over one million trees growing. Nursery manager Jeffrey Smette and his crew irrigate the sandy loam soil using submersible pumps and above-ground galvanized sprinkler heads. A major part of the tree operation is lifting the roots and either transplanting the trees from a seedling bed to a root bed or lifting them for harvest. The sandy soil is not only suitable for irrigation but is ideal for lifting roots, a job, Smette said, that requires a huge amount of time and man power.

Trees are grown for three to five years, at which point the trees are harvested. Approximately 60 percent of the trees are sourced to the North Dakota Soil Conservation Districts, but rural land owners, some nurseries, and other Soil Conservation Districts round out the customer base. Last year, 850,000 trees were sold, keeping the nursery self-sufficient.

Trees are a relatively inexpensive investment. A four-year old transplanted tree from Towner sells for $.75, a savings that is passed along to conservation districts and eventually land owners.

The hardiness of the species makes the trees well-adapted to harsh winters and the high pH soils of the prairie states. Purchasing trees from nurseries that do not produce trees specifically for the cold winters common to the Plains can result in disaster for landowners. A tree may grow and survive for ten years of mild winters and then fall victim to a bitter winter.

"The value of trees is important to any rural person who farms or ranches," Smette said. "We're glad to be a small part of that growing trees well-adapted for this region."

Field wind breaks and those around residences and cattle feeding facilities are among the most common use of the conifers grown by Towner. Landowners must make decisions on species based upon their area, soil types, and purpose. Smette suggests involving local soil conservation districts in the planning stages to determine the best species and proper installation methods. Districts can complete a web soil survey using legal description or address to evaluate the soil to match which species are best suited to the area. This portion of the planning is vital as it can mean the difference between the plant's success or failure.

"Most of the time it is a grouping of multiple species that grows together to function as a living snow fence or wind break," he said. "We want to shift the wind from lower elevation, up and over so generally you have lower growing plants on the outside. The tallest species would be in the middle."

A typical five or nine row belt would consist of shorter, dense species on both sides of taller species with a decorative row visible from an outdoor living area or home. The combinations of species are nearly limitless but Smette suggests including some sort of conifer, ideal because of their density, adaptation to a wide range of soils, low precipitation needs, and hardiness. Using a diversity of species is well advised to withstand a disease or insect problem that could potentially kill an entire species in one area. In short, the right plants for the right location is the key to success.

As the saying goes, the best time to plant trees is 20 years ago. However, if you don't have a time machine, there's no time like the present.

Trees are most successful if they are planted while dormant, which means early spring or late fall.

According to a publication by the University of Nebraska Extension, site preparation is one of the most important parts of windbreak establishment success. They suggest using a herbicide application in the spring if the site has heavy grass sod. That is followed by plowing in the fall, then disking the following spring just prior to planting, to retain moisture as long as possible and control early spring weeds.

Competition from weeds is one of the major reasons tree plantings fail. Applying synthetic mulch or fabric can be an effective way to control weeds without herbicides. It is often easiest to apply the fabric at planting. The fabric plays a dual role of both limiting weed growth and retaining moisture surrounding the trees.

Most Natural Resource Conservation Services offer tree planting and fabric application services, or you can rent the equipment to plant the trees and apply the fabric yourself. Your local NRCS is a great resource for planning and sourcing trees that are appropriate for your area, whether you're looking at a mile-long shelterbelt, or a few trees around the house.