Is there anything more unsettling than suddenly encountering a patch of windblown snow on a rural highway — especially as you're zipping along on what you thought was dry road? (Driving the speed limit, of course.)

This is terrifying to me, especially given my negligible driving skills.

This spring, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is ramping up its "living snow fence" program, just as farmers begin planting their fields across the state. The program aims to create safer road conditions by paying farmers to leave corn rows, hay bales or silage bags along the side of state-maintained roads to break blowing snow.

The program has been around for a number of years, but it really gained steam after the terrible 1996-97 winter (remember that one?). "At that point, we began to ask, 'What can we do to make things better, and reach more people?' " said Dan Gullickson, coordinator of the living snow fence program.

Farmers involved in the program typically leave six rows of corn stalks planted roughly 200 feet from the centerline of the highway. MnDOT also works with private landowners to plant prairie grasses, shrubbery, and wildflowers along the road, creating a more permanent natural barrier.

Sometimes steel or composite fencing is used. And evergreen shrubs can provide attractive natural "fencing" to shield homes that are close to the highway.

"The standing corn rows and hay bales are temporary solutions," Gullickson said. "My favorite shrubs are viburnums because they provide a food source for migrating songbirds.

"I also like working with hybrid willows similar to pussy willow," he added. "The beauty of that plant is that it's something that's in bloom now, honeybees are out and about and looking for food, and willows can provide that."

Beyond that, the makeshift fences improve driver visibility and enable snowplow drivers to use less salt, sand and chemicals and ultimately plow less, saving MnDOT money, Gullickson said.

The transportation department has identified about 3,700 sections of state highway with snow and blowing snow problems. That translates into about 1,200 miles of road, or 10 percent of the 12,000 miles of MnDOT's transportation network.

The subsidy that MnDOT pays to farmers and landowners — currently set at $155 per acre of living snow fence installed — can vary. Payments are based on a 150-foot-wide snow catch area, with allowance for an annual adjustment depending on the performance of the Farm Product Price index.

MnDOT works with the University of Minnesota Extension Service and the U's Center for Transportation Studies to track results of the program. One interesting finding: Standing corn rows reduced the severity of injuries on curves by 40 percent.

"The reason we want to get the word out today is because we're going into spring planting season," Gullickson said. "Oftentimes we hear from farmers who say, 'Oh, I would be interested in doing that, but I planted my field oriented so it's not parallel to the road.' "

Farmers and landowners who want more information about the program can visit www.mndot.gov/environment/livingsnowfence.