The Complicated Saga of Farm Drainage

Recently, a journalist published a story about tile drainage in farm fields in the Star Tribune.

Minnesota is heavy with inaccurate information when it comes to water quality concerns right now. Some concerns, although with the best of intentions, are far more complex than made out to be. Some concerns, have been perpetuated with what one might call a “tall tale” to instill fear in the general public. Some concerns, are very valid, and farmers alike have taken steps to mitigate and stop issues, but it will likely take longer than a single year, even two, three or 10 to turn back some of what has accumulated over 50, or 100 years. It’s easy to say it wasn’t all that long ago, but really, 1990 will be 30 years ago in 2 more years already. Farming practices have drastically changed just in the last 5 years, let alone 30, 50, or 75 years.

A major uncontrollable factor that many fail to address is that we have seen an increase in what are commonly referred to as “100 year” rain events across Minnesota. As much as we would like to as farmers, we can’t control Mother Nature, and sometimes she’s cranky. These events have overwhelmed the best designed tiling systems, city sewer and water, and counties.

That water has to go somewhere, and it will. You can choose to lose your topsoil and along with it bring phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients directly into streams, lake, and rivers. Or, you can install tile, using the soil as a filter, increasing the water holding capacity of soil, greatly reducing the amount of soil loss, nutrients in waters and benefiting soil microbes. Does it fix everything? No. If someone could create a magic box that removes nitrates from water that we could install as part of a tile installation, that would be one of the best things that could happen to agriculture.

When we are considering a tile project, we first submit our plans to the NRCS office in the county the field is in. The NRCS goes through a wetland determination process before we can begin. If the area we want to tile is determined to be a wetland, we have to A, either stop the project all together, or B, find another area of land we have and install a wetland. Essentially it is a wetland for a wetland.

Majority of ditches created, were created as public or private drainage ditches for the sole purpose of draining water. They were designed to do exactly what their job is. Public drainage ditches particularly, have assessed landowner fees based on every landowners discharge within the drainage ditch. Sometimes a public drainage ditch has fields for miles that are part of its drainage area. It seems impractical to yell about something that is doing exactly what it was designed to do and is under legal authority by an SWCD. Any drainage ditch lawyer will tell you the amount of information, paperwork, and science that goes into redetermination of benefits for public drainage ditches is more than anyone thinks.

When you see tile projects happening, many times, this isn’t necessarily new tile, but an upgrade to an already tiled field. For instance, we recently replaced old, cracked and collapsed cement tile, with new perforated plastic tile in our field. Many fields already have cement or clay tile in them – you are often just seeing a replacement or upgrade to a current failing system. 75 years ago, the editorial was right, there more than likely wasn’t a map of that drain tile. We had to use a tile finding machine to even figure out where the tile went. My husband now uses infrared thermal UAV technology to map drain tile for farmers without maps of systems on their land. Tile mapping is now completely constructed ahead of time utilizing GIS and GPS software to follow land topography, soil type, water holding capacity and more. New, updated, and repaired systems are completely mapped out. Whether or not a SWCD or NRCS office has that map, is a different question.

Media often fails to mention the implementation of farm practices such as cover crops, variable rate application, zone management, nitrogen fixers, etc. that all play a role in things like nutrient management, water holding capacity, soil structure, and more. There are many positive things that have been implemented that are just starting to see benefits 4-5 years down the road.

The angst amongst farmers over that story, is that it is spreading half-truths about a situation that is more complicated than could ever be covered in a short letter or a blog post like this. As much as I’d like to address everything in detail with every study out there, that would get a bit long and boring. Are farmers working to improve water quality? Every day. Are there always a few bad apples in a bunch? Of course. Are we willing to have conversations, research new ideas and implement new practices, and come to the table for respectful dissemination of information? Definitely. As farmers, we get tired of the fear mongering instead of looking for sensible solutions or an understanding that the issue is not as simple as a single story.



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