Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Hedging our bets against snowy roads

Western New Yorkers of baby boom vintage are fond of saying that there was a lot more snow when they were kids. Theirs is an incorrect observation. The average annual snowfall for Buffalo during the 1950s was 95.8 inches. During the first decade of the 2000s it was a smidgen more, at 96.6 inches.

So, if that isn’t true, then why did it seem like there was? You hear from countless men and women in their 60s, especially those who grew up in farm country, that they remember playing atop huge snow drifts, sliding down them and building forts within them.

There aren’t experiencing a shared delusion: It really seems like there was more snow because it behaved differently back then. 

By behaving differently, I mean it was more likely to accumulate in large drifts.

That’s because there were more -- and smaller -- farms in the 1950s. In 1954, there were 4.78 million farms in the United States, averaging 242 acres in size. Those farmers used hedgerows as boundaries for either their property or fields of differing use. Those hedgerows became windbreaks and prevented blowing snow from spreading all across the land. It collected against those hedges and created some massive drifts (at least through the eyes of a playful child).

Fast forward to 2017. Because of the ongoing transformation of America from an agrarian society to an industrial and service economy, coupled with developments in farming technology and seeds that have boosted yields dramatically, it takes less farming enterprises than it once did to feed the masses. Farms are fewer (there are now 2.1 million in the US) and larger (their average size has grown to 434 acres).

Today’s larger operations purchased those smaller ones that dominated days gone by and added them to their property portfolios. By doing so, there is less of a need for property-delineating hedges. And, with the focus on intensification of agricultural practices, which has led to larger, single-crop field networks, there is less of a need for crop-dividing strips of trees.

I bring this all up in light of last Tuesday’s winter weather. Intense winds of 20 to 40 miles per hour blew snow all over, making for drifted-over roads and incredibly dicey drives through rural locales, affecting most of the readers of this column. It wasn’t a fun commute.

I ask the aforementioned Baby Boomers to think back to their childhood. Back in those days, the drifts were large and plentiful because of roadside hedgerows and the accompanying in-field hedges. The roads weren’t so drifted over because those trees collected the snow and piled it up, and stopped more from coming. Cars and trucks of far inferior technology and lesser tires navigated the highways with relative ease. You might even remember the wisps of wind-driven snow coming from the peaks of drifts, some 3 to 6 feet over the road, rather than right on it.

Country roads were safer back then.

I’m not going to fault farmers for our current predicament. It’s an unintended consequence of changing practices and entirely different industry. Plus, every hedgerow, in my view, equals a loss of revenue. In a state like this in which it’s difficult to do business, let alone a business the health of which hinges entirely on the prospect of good weather, every single penny matters.  

But, it will take farmers to make the roads a little better…with a partnership from local governments.

You certainly can’t ask farmers or local road crews to put up snow fences. We have too many roads. Niagara County alone has a whopping 1,700 miles of pavement. Can you imagine the man hours it would take to fence even a fraction of that?  

Living fences, the aforementioned hedgerows, are the answer. They worked when my parents were kids. They worked when I was a kid growing up on a farm road.

For the benefit of public safety and even less wear and tear on plow equipment, governments should develop voluntary incentive programs for farmers in troublesome areas to plant windbreaks. Incentives are necessary because we can’t ask someone to forgo income from abandoning fair-sized strips of arable land.  

Some states grant significant property tax deductions for the use of windbreaks. Indiana, as a prime example, assesses windbreaks at the rate of just $1 per acre. Farmland in New York typically sells for $1,500 to $2,000 an acre – if we had a $1 assessment here for land repurposed as public benefit, imagine the participation!  

Other states pay outright for windbreaks, which, to me, is a last resort because no one wants to add to the cost of government. Minnesota, for example, pays farmers to leave corn stalks standing in 6 to 20 row increments through April (a less permanent investment of space). That contract runs in one-year installments, so a farmer isn’t bound if he chooses to alternate crops.  

There is a cure for these modern snowy roads that make our drives so white-knuckled. We just need some local and state officials to hedge their bets and gamble on help from the ag industry.

From the 08 January Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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