GRAND FORKS — Well, the Legislature’s adjourned, but the wind is still blowing. No surprise there, of course. In North Dakota, the only time the wind isn’t blowing is when it’s changing direction, or so it seems.
Pretty much every North Dakotan has something to say about the wind, and that includes the folks at the Soil Conservation District office in Grand Forks County. Their spring newsletter is all about wind, and its tone is very much downbeat. Here’s the first sentence of the front-page story:
“March 30, 2021, the winds came and soils left unprotected blew — relocated across the county’s landscape including vegetated areas, farmsteads, streams, rivers and lakes ... and even highway rest stops.” As the newsletter points out, “Wind erosion is not a new problem for fields in the county,” nor anywhere in the state.
Back when I was a farm boy, Dad and I would load black dirt from the fence lines and drive it into town for sale to newcomers who’d arrived in Stanley to install nuclear missiles around Minot Air Force Base and to drill for oil over near Tioga. Our town, Stanley, is about halfway between Minot and Tioga, and so it saw significant growth in the late 1950s and early '60s. The newcomers wanted black dirt for their lawns.
Getting at the dirt was a risky business. Windstorms in the 1930s drove topsoil across the country. It piled up along the fence line, burying the fence posts and the barbed wire. We had to look out for both of them. But dirt was in demand and money is money, so we did it. Dad joked that he made more money selling Depression Era dirt than he did raising wheat. Or maybe he wasn’t joking.
My parents were married in July 1933, during one of the hottest and driest and dustiest summers of the Dirty Thirties. Both of them had what seemed to be an inexhaustible treasury of Depression Era stories. Wind figures in nearly every one of them.
Back to the Conservation District’s newsletter, which offered a brief history of soil conservation efforts in Grand Forks. These began seriously in 1937, when the Legislature adopted model legislation forwarded by the Roosevelt administration — that would be Franklin Roosevelt’s administration — that established soil conservation districts.
Here the newsletter takes a pessimistic turn: “Unfortunately, 84 years later, soil erosion is still a significant problem for Grand Forks County” and for the state. “The rich topsoils found across the state are being lost. In some areas, over 50% of topsoil is gone.”
It’s not just the dirt that blows away. “The erosion carries away organic matter and essential nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, which can reduce productivity of remaining soils,” leading to other problems, as the newsletter tells us. “Eventually some of the eroded soils and nutrients are deposited in streams and lakes. The soils fill up the waterbodies and the nutrients that feed blue-green algae that cause algal blooms (and) can make people ill and kill pets and livestock that ingest toxins produced by the algae.” Look no farther than Larimore Dam “one of several lakes in the state that experience frequent algal blooms that limit recreation activities.”
The newsletter’s third page has a story about the “Prairie States Forestry Project,” also known as “the shelterbelt project.” This was another of the visionary ideas that emerged to fight the Depression. FDR’s administration expected that planting trees in a 100-mile-wide strip from the panhandle of Texas to the Canadian border would create jobs as well as protect land.
The “shelterbelt project” had a dramatic effect in Grand Forks County. This was clear to me on my first visit to Grand Forks County, in 1965, when my parents drove me to Grand Forks to enroll at UND. Dad noticed a sign along the highway just north of Larimore. It boasted that Grand Forks County had the highest concentration of farm shelterbelts in the world. That claim resonated with Dad. He trusted the kid to take care of the cows while he bolstered the family income by planting trees for the Mountrail County Soil Conservation Service.
The driving force behind this effort locally was Franklin Page, the county agent. I met him in 1966, when I was sandbagging behind his house in the Riverside neighborhood. He was fretful about pear trees he’d planted against the side of his house, using a technique called espalier. Page loved trees.
Many of his shelterbelts have vanished. Here’s the SCD newsletter again: “It’s hard not to notice many of these windbreaks are leaving the landscape to make room for larger equipment, drainage and irrigation pivots. It’s also easy to see the soil is just as exposed as it was in the 1930s.”
That’s certainly true in my corner of the county. As the Soil Conservation newsletter notes, “It does seem that the topsoil is as vulnerable as ever.”
The conclusion is a little more upbeat. “Our technicians can help plan renovation of these old windbreaks to fulfill your goals as well as keeping effective windbreaks on the landscape for years to come."
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.