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Replanting hope

John & Ben Olson
John and Ben Olson, who farm together in Benton County, walk along a recently planted row of windbreak trees. The saplings were planted this spring after the Olsons' previous stand was taken down last August in the derecho windstorm. Partial funding for the new trees came from the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers’ Derecho Windbreak Grant Program. The Olsons raise beef cattle and row crops in eastern Iowa. PHOTO / GARY FANDEL

The grass is growing like crazy, corn is spiking in the fields and trees are returning to the landscape around Ben Olson’s beef cattle operation.

Ben Olson, along with his dad, John, raise row crops and cattle in Benton County. Across four properties, the family lost 35 structures and dozens of 10- to 20-year-old trees on Aug. 10, 2020, when a derecho windstorm raged across the middle of the state.

“Looking around the neighborhood, seeing how many bins and barns are going up, I think things are coming back nicely,” Ben Olson said May 5.

His farm received a batch of Arborvitae, Norwegian Spruce and White Pine trees in April as part of the Derecho Windbreak Grant Program (DWGP), offered through the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers (CSIF). 

The program was created last year to aid farmers in Iowa who lost windbreaks around their livestock barns or feedlots.

“If your farm sustained damage to its livestock and poultry barns, open feedlots or even windbreaks, now may be a good time to have the coalition come out to your farm and assess your best options for moving forward,” CSIF said. “Some farmers may just decide to replace damaged buildings, while some may want to take the opportunity to relocate and improve facilities. If you are a farmer that has gone through the Master Matrix and took points for trees around your livestock barn that are now damaged or gone, you need to get a plan in place to replace them.”

The value of trees

The Olsons are living proof of the value of trees around their operation. 

“The windbreaks work really well as snow breaks during the winter,” John Olson said. “It also keeps the worst of the winds off the cattle.”

The family has maintained windbreaks around their feedlots for many years. In fact, many of the trees destroyed in 2020 were planted after another windstorm took down trees on the farm in 2010. It was devastating for them to lose much of their cover in the middle of summer last year. 

“I was away from the farm for the day when the storm came through,” Ben Olson said. “We were hoping for a little rain since it was dry last summer. Dad called me after the storm hit. We just couldn’t believe how bad it was.”

Following the storm, John Olson said, a lot of organizations and groups made promises to help folks out. Not all those promises were fulfilled.

“But CSIF came through for us. They just got it done,” he said.

The process was straight forward. Frazier Nursery in Vinton came out to the farm in January with a bid to replace the lost trees. Frazier and the Olsons built a planting plan and sent it to CSIF for approval. That plan was approved in March, and the trees were planted in April.

Doing the right thing

“This is helping us do the right thing on our farm to prevent problems down the road,” Ben Olson said.

According to CSIF, the value of windbreaks goes well beyond the aesthetics: “There are many reasons to plant trees — from snow control to wind protection to improving relationships with neighbors. Although there will be an upfront cost, have you considered the ways a properly designed tree planting could pay for itself? If you don’t have to scoop snow out of feed bunks, off pit fans or a roof, trees pay for themselves quickly. Additionally, trees can provide visual screening, reduce odor and improve relationships with neighbors. The cost of establishing trees is much cheaper than defending yourself in a nuisance lawsuit.”

New tree stands

While the derecho grant program has ended, CSIF continues to offer advice for livestock farmers to plant trees through the Green Farmstead Partner program. More information is available at www.supportfarmers.com.

Now that replanting is underway, the Olsons are putting in hybrid willow trees around their waste lagoons later this spring, and a local FFA group came out recently to plant a Bur oak near Ben's home and a maple at John's house.

“We know trees help us. We’ve seen it first-hand,” Ben Olson said. “Rebuilding these windbreaks was an easy decision for us.”


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