For the past couple of years, Ted Kornder has left a swath of cornstalks standing along a stretch of his farm that borders Hwy. 169 near Belle Plaine — on purpose.
Unknown to thousands of motorists speeding along the busy thoroughfare every day, Kornder’s standing corn rows are a critical part of a Minnesota Department of Transportation program to combat snow blowing onto the highway.
The wall of corn acts as a natural fence of sorts, blocking snow from fanning across the road — and keeping cars from careening out of control on icy patches of the rural roadway southwest of the Twin Cities.
“Even without a snowstorm, if you get the wrong wind and then get blowing snow, it would still pack on the highway and you would have a lot of accidents,” Kornder said. “One day I counted 17 cars in a ditch near my house.”
MnDOT depends on many farmers and private landowners to contribute to its living fence program throughout the state, and hopes to expand the effort in the future.
“It works well,” said Dan Gullickson, MnDOT’s Living Snow Fence Program coordinator. “Folks who have participated in the program and snowplow operators really see the positive difference it makes in terms of improving visibility and road-surface driving conditions.”
Sometimes efforts to create a living snow fence involve leaving corn intact; in other cases, trees, shrubs, native grasses and wildflowers are planted permanently along selected highways and ramps. If using private land, MnDOT pays owners a fee based on a formula — the minimum standing corn row fence payment is $1,000 an acre.
One MnDOT study from 2012 indicated living snow fences can reduce snow- and ice-related accidents by 40 percent on certain highways. About 80 miles of state highways have long-term snow fencing, while another 30 miles are devoted to short-term snow fences like Kornder’s.
“We’re really focusing on sections of highway that are giving us problems beyond routine snowplowing,” Gullickson said. “It’s not something we can use everywhere.”
In addition to safety attributes, Gullickson said the program helps MnDOT save money by reducing the time needed to plow roads, as well as the amount of salt used to keep them clear.
“For every dollar we spend, we save $5,” he said. MnDOT districts set aside money from their maintenance budgets to pay for the standing corn row program, but Gullickson wasn’t sure of the total amount.
Research at the University of Minnesota found that when comparing the cost of snow removal with living snow fences, there’s an average benefit-cost ratio of 17 to 1.
Salt reduction is also important “because once you get that salt into lakes and streams, it can take forever to get it out,” Gullickson said. “If you can prevent the amount of salt used, it helps reduce the impact on the environment.”
Living snow fences aren’t a new phenomenon. Gullickson points to an info-cartoon from a 1942 edition of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune and Star Journal Magazine heralding the “attractive and efficient snow barriers.”
And their use isn’t limited to Minnesota. A 2017 U report noted 18 states used living snow fences on public and private land, most of them concentrated in northern stretches of the country that experience severe winters.
The study also found some MnDOT employees “seem to have a knowledge gap regarding blowing snow control measures and tools.” It recommended that staff be dedicated to work on the program, and that MnDOT simplify procedures and talking points when dealing with the public, said Dean Current, director of the U’s Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management, who led the study.
Another challenge is persuading landowners to participate.
“A big issue for farmers is having to work around [the snow fence] as they prepare for crops and taking land out of production,” Current said. “It’s a little bit of a nuisance, but MnDOT has structured payments to address that.”
While money serves as an incentive to attract landowners to the program, altruism plays a part, too.
“If we can keep one person out of the ditch in the winter, it’s worth it,” Kornder said.