Shrub willows hold promise for snow fence, biomass, farm income

Researchers using a large red backdrop to assess porosity

Researchers used a large red backdrop to assess porosity in shrub willow living snow fences. Photo: U of M Extension

University of Minnesota Extension researchers have identified and tested a promising plant that has the potential to make the creation of living snow fences faster and more affordable. The plant—shrub willow—also could become a source of biomass and income for farmers.

When planted alongside rural roadways, living snow fences—rows of trees, shrubs, or other vegetation—serve as windbreaks to keep snow and ice from blowing off farm fields and onto roads. They help improve safety for drivers while reducing maintenance operations costs for local agencies.

Shrub willow is easily planted with dormant stem cuttings, has fast growth rates, offers numerous ecosystem services, is adaptable to an array of growing conditions, and even has the potential to serve as a fuel for biomass energy production.

To determine whether shrub willow would work well in Minnesota, researchers evaluated designs for living snow fence plantings at a test site along a MnDOT right-of-way. The researchers planted three shrub willow varieties in two arrangements and measured the plants’ growth and snow-trapping ability over two seasons.

“The willows had high survival and growth rates after two growing seasons, with the potential to trap all of the mean annual blowing snow at the site after three or four growing seasons,” says lead researcher Diomy Zamora, Extension Professor/Extension Educator.

Researchers also worked to determine the costs of planting shrub willow living snow fences and the viability of harvesting the shrub willows for biomass energy. They discovered that shrub willows are easier to plant and more cost-effective to install than other plants used for living snow fences in Minnesota; they estimated the cost of a 100-meter, four-row living snow fence at less than $8,000.

The team also found that the cost of using shrub willows for biomass is likely prohibitively expensive for the individual farmer and that there is currently little demand for shrub willow biomass in Minnesota. “However,” Zamora says, “if an entire corridor was planted as a shrub willow living snow fence, it could compete with field-scale production and provide a possible energy source in the future.”

Overall, researchers believe shrub willows have a high potential for providing effective and affordable living snow fences in Minnesota, which bodes well for future growth in this cost-saving—and potentially life-saving—transportation program.

For more information, read the full article in the January issue of CTS Catalyst.

Posted in Environment, Safety, Transportation research

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