Hammer: Standing rows of corn in fields help prevent snow, ice from blowing onto roads

Grant Hammer
Grant Hammer

Travel along rural roads in our area this winter, and you just might see an unusual sight.

Those standing corn rows, still there weeks after the fall harvest? Those are no mistake: They’re helping keep the road in front of you clearer and safer.

The McHenry-Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District has partnered with local transportation officials, farmers and lawmakers on the Living Snow Fence Program.

Ed Weskerna, a resource conservationist with the district, brought this idea that has worked well in other states to officials locally, suggesting that a few hundred feet of corn crop be left standing along the roads during our typically blustery winters – with snow totals of nearly 3 feet a year, and sometimes more. The move could mean increased safety, reduced road-clearing costs and a meaningful environmental benefit.

The Living Snow Fence Program is the product of collaboration between the conservation district, the McHenry County Division of Transportation, McHenry County Farm Bureau, lawmakers and farmers.

The program is the result of a successful public-private partnership, and it is likely the first such program of its type within the state.

The program will save the time and expense associated with the installation of snow fence along county roadways by enticing farmers to leave standing rows of corn crop in the field that will serve as snow traps that prevent snow and ice from blowing across open fields onto roadways.

McHenry County officials determined that buying the standing corn is more efficient in time and cost per linear foot than installing traditional plastic snow fences or barriers.

In the future, the county conceivably could provide for more snow fencing, and as a result, it could decrease the amount of its use of road salts, which can have adverse environmental effect with their eventual seepage into soils, vegetation and surface and groundwater.

The use of agricultural commodities as effective roadway snow barriers has been deployed elsewhere with success.

The practice was not adopted earlier in Illinois, however, because of state statutes that hampered the adoption of the practice.

What was needed, in Weskerna’s estimation, was added flexibility for counties to offer reimbursement to farmers willing to leave their crops in fields.

Weskerna and partners enlisted the help of state Rep. Barbara Wheeler, who, along with state Rep. Keith Wheeler and former state Sen. Pamela Althoff, worked diligently to successfully guide a bill through the General Assembly that later would be signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in the summer of 2017.

The modification to state law provided counties the needed flexibility to offer farmers more competitive rates for their crops.

Illinois’ soil and water conservation districts are nontaxing bodies of local government composed of volunteer boards of area landowners who work to develop solutions that protect the rich, fertile farm soils and water resources of the state through strategic conservation efforts. 

The districts do not, however, have a lengthy record of claiming credit for their collective good works. That said, credit is due to Weskerna and the McHenry-Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District board of directors for their initiative in identifying a local issue and developing an effective solution that presents itself in the form of good public policy – a win for all.

Soil and water conservation districts do this kind of work all the time to manage taxpayer investments soundly and protect our environment and natural resources.

We often don’t notice it, and it may not be as obvious as a few rows of corn standing near the roadway on a snowy day, but our commitment is to continue to find ways to partner with our elected officials, government agencies and the private sector to make Illinois greener and greater.

• Grant Hammer is executive director of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

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