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Preventing another Dust Bowl, one tree at a time

"Growing Together" columnist Don Kinzler spends time with North Dakota’s Cass County Soil Conservation District, which is tasked with planting tree windbreaks and establishing conservation measures throughout the county.

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Tree rows are planted near Absaraka, N.D., on June 7, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — Have you heard of the “Dirty Thirties?” That’s how my parents and their generation referred to the 1930s when the windswept soil of the treeless Midwest plains turned the region into the infamous Dust Bowl.

As if the Great Depression wasn’t struggle enough, the Plains states endured a decade of drought and heat that made fields sparse and barren. Coupled with prior farming practices that left soil exposed, precious topsoil that took centuries to form became airborne, ending up everywhere else but on the windswept fields from where it blew.

The loss of topsoil during those years was tragic, but good things followed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated an ambitious program to plant thousands of miles of tree rows throughout the Midwest. Whether we call them shelterbelts or windbreaks, these rows of trees stretching between fields prevent wind from eroding away our precious topsoil, conserving one of nature’s most important resources.

Click here to read more of Don Kinzler's "Growing Together" and "Fielding Questions" columns.

Unfortunately, trees don’t live forever, and some tree rows planted as field windbreaks in the 1940s or '50s are now 70 to 80 years old and have succumbed to problems. Most of us have observed rows of rural trees being bulldozed away.

Can the Dust Bowl happen today? In last year’s drought, windswept soil covered a North Dakota rest stop roadway so deeply that snow removal equipment was brought in to clear away the drifts of deposited topsoil.

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A hero in the fight to save our natural resources is North Dakota’s Cass County Soil Conservation District, which is tasked with continuing the tradition of planting tree windbreaks and establishing conservation measures throughout the county.

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Natahan Storm and Brittany Lindermann plant trees near Absaraka, N.D., on June 7, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum

I had the opportunity to spend time recently with the organization’s director, Jeff Miller, and crew while they were planting tree rows in rural Cass County, and the process is fascinating. A tractor drives along with two crew members seated on the planter busily inserting trees into an open furrow, which quickly closes behind, with the equipment firming the soil around the roots as the tractor and crew move swiftly and efficiently along.

Miller indicated that last year alone, the Cass County Soil Conservation District planted almost 70,000 trees and shrubs, which provided windbreaks along 220,000 lineal feet within the county. That’s over 40 miles worth of trees, just in one year! A large portion of the plantings were installed with weed barrier fabric to conserve moisture and to eliminate weeds that rob water and nutrients.

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Jeff Miller (left) and Don Kinzler chat while watching tree rows being planted near Absaraka, N.D.
David Samson / The Forum

Tree planting is an obvious part of the district’s mission, but there’s much more. Educating about the importance of natural resource conservation is a high priority for Miller and his staff, and you can see them at informational booths at home and garden shows, trade shows, agricultural events and presenting education for people of all ages, from schools to senior citizens centers.

Although trees naturally come to mind, the district also plants perennial grasses, forbs, cover crops and alfalfa, totaling 3,500 acres last year.

Rural areas aren’t the only benefactors of the district’s mission. In a county with a large urban population like Cass, the district leads a vibrant urban conservation program, which includes the Pocket Prairie Initiative, community garden grants, pollinator plantings and a wealth of information about rain gardens, composting and xeriscaping. The district partners with Fargo Parks and Riverkeepers in the urban ReForest the Red program.

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Tree rows are planted near Absaraka, N.D.
David Samson / The Forum

Cass County Soil Conservation District’s services are extremely affordable, as they cost share 60 to 75% of the various programs they offer. The district is very much a grassroots organization with a five-person local board that can quickly respond to local needs.

A key to the district’s planting success is their local sourcing of plants. Evergreen tree seedlings are sourced from Towner, deciduous trees and shrubs come from Lincoln, pocket prairie plants are from Enderlin, and grass and forb seeds are from a West Fargo company — all towns within North Dakota — with some tree types sourced from neighboring South Dakota. Sourcing plants locally provides material well-suited to our climate and ecosystem.

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For more information about the Cass County Soil Conservation District and the programs they offer, visit their website at https://cassscd.org/.

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North Dakota’s Cass County Soil Conservation District is tasked with continuing the tradition of planting tree windbreaks and establishing conservation measures throughout the county.
David Samson / The Forum

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.
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