LANCASTER, Pa. — When humans get careless with Mother Nature, bad things can happen.
Tracey Coulter grew up in the Upper Midwest and is well-acquainted with the history of what happened when farmers plowed the prairie sod under and left their land naked to the wind.
Now Coulter is the agroforestry coordinator at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, where she helps landowners use plants to protect the land from the elements.
Coulter spoke on hedgerows, windrows and buffers at the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which was held Feb. 5-8 at the Lancaster County Convention Center.
First, some definitions.
A hedgerow is a line of trees, shrubs, bushes and other vegetation along the edge of a field, road or property line.
A windbreak is a hedgerow planted to mitigate the effects of wind.
Windbreaks are especially important on the Plains, where gales sometimes kick up dangerous dust storms and cause erosion even today — decades after poor management turned the central U.S. into the Dust Bowl.
Coulter said she doesn't expect Western-style dust storms to pop up in the Northeast, but some farmers in the region might still be able to boost crop yields by planting windbreaks along exposed, windswept fields.
Windbreaks beside poultry houses can also trap particulates blasted out of the exhaust fans, she said.
In the Mid-Atlantic, the most familiar type of hedgerow might be the riparian buffer.
Planted along streams, they are great at sheltering aquatic life from the sun, stabilizing banks, and reducing nutrient runoff.
As part of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, Pennsylvania announced in 2016 that it hoped to increase buffer coverage by 95,000 acres within a decade.
USDA pays farmers to plant buffers on their land and manage them as a natural area.
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has taken a slightly different tack, encouraging farmers to include plants that can yield a crop.
Switchgrass, for example, can be harvested in a section of the buffer a bit removed from the stream bank. Pawpaws can be sold on the fresh market, and elderberries can be cooked and used in jellies, jams and wine.