Their crops may be buried under a foot of snow at times, but there’s never been a more important time for Woolwich farmers to worry about soil erosion. With blistering winds routinely damaging crops, volunteer organization Trees for Woolwich has hired forestry specialist Mark Funk to help farmers learn all they need to know about the protective benefits of tree planting.
But it’s not the easiest sell in an area long known for its deforestation. In the early 20th century, forest cover in the Grand River watershed had fallen to five per cent, with clearing occurring even in areas without arable soil. (Forest cover has since risen to 14 per cent – still far from the 30 per cent environmental ideal).
“My uncle has a vineyard that I grew up on, and he cuts down every tree he finds, because they’re habitats for birds, and birds eat grapes, right?” Funk laughed. “And it’s a total misconception, because the type of birds that are eating his grapes don’t use the trees. But he insists on it.”
Trees for Woolwich offers assistance building several kinds of tree windbreaks. Farmstead shelterbelts surround the farm property with trees; field windbreaks involve planting rows of trees adjacent to crop fields to slow wind; and living snow fences trap snow blowing across open fields, thus improving road conditions.
In addition to these benefits, Trees for Woolwich emphasizes that trees can increase a property’s value, reduce water runoff, and combat the nastier bouts of weather.
“In the last 10 years or so, we have seen somewhat more extreme weather,” said Inga Rinne, chair of Trees for Woolwich. “We’ve had uncommonly hot, dry summers, and we’ve had really nasty storms. So, the extremes are the source of what you’re trying to protect from, and I think a lot of people who talk about climate change would say that that’s one of the impacts.”
Funk’s services include helping farmers pick species and designing planting plans. And, if the cost of landscaping seems prohibitive, one of Funk’s duties is making government assistance programs accessible to farmers. If the landowner is eligible, the Rural Water Quality Program can fund 75 per cent of costs up to $6,000. For eligible rural non-farm landowners, the figure may be 75 per cent for $3,000.
Still, even today, Funk finds there are many misconceptions about trees.
“Beside the trees, there are usually a few rows of smaller crops because they’re shaded by the trees, and that’s why people think, Oh, it’s hurting my crops,” said Funk. “What they don’t realize is over a distance 10 to 20 times the height of the trees, the percentage increase of crops more than makes up for the loss.”
He added, “In some areas, you can get up to a 25 per cent increase on crop yields.”
Trees for Woolwich is a volunteer organization founded in 2011 by members of the Township of Woolwich Environmental Enhancement Committee, with the goal to plant 23,000 new trees in the area by 2016. While the organization promotes the financial benefits of their environmental initiatives, their mission has a broader scope.
“One of the reasons why there are programs to assist with the cost is, there’s a benefit to the farmer, but there’s a community-wide benefit too,” said Rinne. “Greater tree cover gives you cleaner air, shade, wildlife corridors for animals, there are all kinds of benefits. That’s why the conclusion is that the cost can be shared.”