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Trees of the Farm

The tree has become an unwelcome guest on the modern-day farm. Understandably, the case against the tree on the farm is pretty clear—yields are normally lower near a forest or even a strip of trees. Seems pretty clear huh? Well maybe not. Before you decide to remove trees from your farm, make sure you have considered all of the tradeoffs.

Rather than removing trees to boost yield, a farmer could opt to convert the low yielding strip to a grassy/brushy strip for wildlife food and cover. This kind of ecosystem can be attractive for species like turkeys, quail, and deer, which could bring additional enjoyment if not income to a landowner. Those strips, if allowed, will have milkweed eventually growing in them providing food and shelter for Monarch butterflies. The trees themselves provide food and cover for game species as well as non-game species, particularly migratory and non-migratory birds. For example, hawk’s nest in trees and use trees adjacent to fields for perching. From the treetops, they hunt voles and mice in farm fields and eat them—a valuable service they do for free.

Trees protect against soil erosion. By their roots they anchor soil in place and stabilize drainageways. This protects our waterways for drinking, wildlife habitat, and recreation by keeping soil on the land where it belongs. Trees also help to clean water by taking up otherwise lost nutrients (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus). Again, all free of charge.

Some of you may not believe this, but trees can actually clean up the air. I am not kidding, and I’m not even talking about climate change…well I am talking about climate change, but not now. That will come later. But back to my point. A row or a strip of trees can reduce the smell of ammonia coming from concentrated animal feeding operations. Ammonia is a form of nitrogen plants can take up as long as the ammonia gets an extra hydrogen atom, which it can pick up inside the leaf stomata (the little tiny holes plants exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide in). The ammonia in the air goes into the leaf stomata and then is dissolved in liquid as ammonium (ammonia + a hydrogen) where it can be used by the plant. Odor control is on the house, curtesy of trees.

Now back to climate change. Scientists and engineers are coming up with the most efficient ways to capture carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and pump it into the ground to store it without costing any energy. So far, the best machine is one that starts off as a tiny capsule. The capsule is placed in the surface of the earth and the machine begins to expand. As soon as expansion starts, typically within one year, the machine is capable of pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and pumping it into the ground. As time goes on, the machine pulls more and more carbon dioxide out of the air, becoming more and more efficient over time. This machine is also solar powered. If you haven’t already guessed, surprise, this machine is a tree and it provides this service pro bono.

It is difficult to say how much each of these services (wildlife and environmental) are worth. Scientists and economist are arguing over this very topic (ecosystem services) at this very moment. Each of you will undoubtedly come up with your own figure. Hopefully I have convinced you that the number is greater than zero and that maybe trees aren’t so bad after all. If you are renting your land out, you may ask your farmer what types of wildlife and environmental enhancements are possible on your land. Or call your local USDA Service Center and ask about the EQIP program.

W. Ashley Hammac