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MnDOT recruits farmers to help keep snow off roads

November 28, 2018
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Members of the Olmsted County 4-H club Burr Oak Beavers picked ears of corn from a strip left standing as a living snow fence along I-90 back in 2014. A MnDOT program gives an incentive to farmers to leave a few rows of cornstalks standing to minimize snow drifting over roadways.

While most farmers hustle to get their crops out of the fields before winter sets in, some are leaving rows of corn up to help the Minnesota Department of Transportation keep snow off the roads.

MnDOT is working with farmers who have fields adjacent to highways to create living snow fences by leaving rows of corn standing or stacked bales by the road. These fences help trap snow and deposit it into ditches instead blowing onto the roadway. The goal is to create drift-free roads, which according to MnDOT are achievable through proper road design and snow fences.

Mike Dougherty, a MnDOT director of public engagement and communications, said the department is willing to either buy portions of farmland, or compensate farmers for taking out a small portion of their cropland.

“If there’s an area that has less blowing snow on it, that’s going to be safer for drivers,” said Dougherty. “If we can stop that drifting, that raises the safety factor for everybody out there.”

Last year, Dougherty said MnDOT had 9 miles worth of living snow fences in the southeast Minnesota district, the most in the state.

Dougherty said that MnDOT’s maintenance staff targets spots of roadway that are lacking coverage, where drifting can be an issue, and farmers within those targeted areas are eligible to participate in the program.

“The thinking is if we can have those corn rows left up, it acts as a natural snow fence and barrier that can knock down some of that snow,” said Dougherty. “And that will save (MnDOT) time and money from not having to have a plow out there making as many passes, or put down as much salt.”

He said most agreements that MnDOT makes with farmers are to leave up a certain number of corn rows.

It’s at least six rows that need to be left standing, but Dougherty said it can sometimes be up to 20 rows.

The corn that farmers commit to leaving up cannot be harvested as it normally would, but Dougherty said farmers can handpick the corn. In the past, he said farmers have gotten volunteers from FFA, 4-H, and even once a high school girls basketball team to do the handpicking.

“So in that case, the farmer gets a little something from that corn, and the corn rows stay up,” said Dougherty. “It’s kind of nice because it works all the way around for everybody.”

For deciding how much to compensate participating farmers, MnDOT uses a specific kind of calculation to look at the what percentage of a farmland they could employ as a snow fence, and how much it would cost for the farmer to lose that amount of production.

The calculator also takes into account how much savings the state could accrue in plowing and salt distribution.

Farmers participating in the program are required to register as state vendors, so they can be paid through the Statewide Integrated Financial Tools system. For standing corn rows or stacked bales, MnDOT enters into a short-term (one winter season) agreement with farmers and payments are made at the end of winter.

There’s also some work being done by MnDOT to plant more vegetation in targeted areas in the state. Dougherty said on Interstate 35, just north of Albert Lea, MnDOT has planted spots of native grasses and herbaceous plants that stand higher than most other vegetation, and therefore help control drifting.

“It’s pretty fascinating all of the thinking and analysis that goes into it,” Dougherty said of road planning.

Eligible farmers are also open to planting similar types of vegetation. Since committing to plant and maintain woody vegetation is a bigger commitment than leaving rows of corn up, MnDOT enters into a 10- to 15-year agreement with farmers, compensating them annually.

“We want to make that driving surface as close to bare pavement as possible, because that’s our standard and what our snowplow operators work towards,” said Dougherty. “Once it snows, it’s about getting back to bare pavement as quickly and efficiently as we can.”

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