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Envisioning the future of ag drainage

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Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a series on agricultural drainage in Nobles County and its benefits and costs to landowners and the environment.

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WORTHINGTON — If every single section of land was pattern-tiled at 50-foot intervals to drain water away, more than 300 million feet —nearly 57,000 miles — of tile line would be buried underground in Nobles County.

“If just a quarter (of the land) was tiled, we could have 75 million feet of tile in Nobles County,” said Stephen Schnieder, director of Nobles County Public Works.

Surely, not every piece of land is pattern-tiled, but there’s no way of knowing just how much underground tile exists. Watershed districts stopped requiring permits for tiling years ago, and no other agency keeps track of the lengths of tile line being installed.

Charlie Loosbrock, co-owner of Loo Con Inc., an agricultural drainage contractor from Wilmont that does a lot of work in Nobles County, said the amount of private tile doesn’t even cover a quarter of the county’s available land, but the demand for ag drainage remains strong.

“A lot of the land doesn’t lend itself to tile,” Loosbrock said. “It’s sandier soil that you really don’t do drainage on, and steep hillsides don’t require pattern drainage.”

Still, Loosbrock said he’s now tiling lands that were typically considered the “more productive lands on the farm” that previously didn’t seem to need drainage. The reason: Farmers have found their lands benefit from tiling as proper air and moisture contents are better maintained in the soil.

Excess water on the land can reduce yields in both corn and soybean fields, and tiling has essentially become a crop production measure for farmers as it pulls the fertilizers and nutrients into the soil and toward the root zone, he explained.

Some farmers, Loosbrock said, have seen a 100-bushel-per-acre increase in corn production on drained land versus undrained land, with all other variables such as seed and fertilizers being the same.

“That’s not common,” he added. “Typically you would see 25 to 40 bushels per acre. In extreme conditions, it really shows up.”

While farmers benefit from drainage, the water collected in the tile lines has to go somewhere, and it’s ending up in the more than 400 miles of county and judicial ditch systems. Those ditch systems, many more than 100 years old, weren’t built to handle so much water. Between line blow-outs and other variables such as freezing and thawing and increased weight of equipment, repairs are ongoing.

“We have replaced a lot of small pieces over the years,” said Schnieder, adding that it’s only going to get worse.

Kurt Deter, an attorney with Rinke Noonen law firm in St. Cloud and one of only five Minnesota attorneys who specialize in drainage law, said aging tile lines and the process for repairing them is an issue that stretches from Roseau County in the north to the southern tier of counties in the state.

He’s been representing counties in drainage issues for the past 35 years, and was also named to a drainage work group established a few years ago as a result of a state legislative mandate.

“Ag drainage is the backbone of agriculture, but how we’re going to do it in the future is going to be the issue,” Deter said. “The systems are 100 years old and a lot of them are Band-Aided together. If they’re not collapsing now, they’re going to collapse in the next few years.”

Statewide, a majority of the drainage systems were constructed between 1903 and 1918. Little to nothing was done with the lines until the 1950s, when Deter said new federal farm programs offered landowners a 75 percent cost-share to install drainage projects. Then, in the late 1970s, the environmental movement came into play and today, the ag and environmental sectors are trying to find a balance.

The drainage work group of which Deter is a member consists of representatives from the Board of Water and Soil Resources. They are now asking important questions, such as how to improve the aging drainage systems, and whether that involves creating more retention areas and shallower systems that are better for the environment.

“There’s all kinds of issues,” Deter said. “Most people agree a 1903 system is not sufficient for today’s agriculture, but do we just enlarge the 1903 system or do something with retention?”

Both the University of Minnesota and University of Iowa are researching the future of agriculture drainage — a vision Deter said may include more controlled drainage. There is the potential in some areas of the state to both drain agricultural land and then use the water collected by the tile lines to irrigate crops when needed.

Whatever solutions are discussed, something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

“There were more (ditch system) projects started in the last four years than in the 31 years prior,” Deter said. “We knew in the early 1980s that these systems needed to be changed, but the ag economy was so terrible at that time, we knew it wasn’t going to happen.”

Now, with farmers willing to pay $10,000 to $12,000 an acre for land and crop prices at record highs through portions of 2012-2013, Deter said some farmers can afford to improve drainage systems on their land.

In a couple of recent cases in Martin County, Deter said drainage projects not only had 100 percent approval from impacted landowners, but that no one questioned the $1 million-plus price tag — they’re just wondering how soon the work can be done.

Not every case is so easy, however. Last fall, a request presented to the Kanaranzi-Little Rock Watershed District to improve Judicial Ditch 11 and several of its branches brought numerous complaints from neighboring landowners.

Deter isn’t surprised by those cases. It used to be, he said, the complaints were the result of “long-standing neighbor disputes.” While there’s still some truth to that, he said it’s also about money and what stage the farmer is in with his ag career.

“Landlords may be on more of a fixed income and can’t pass the cost on to the renters,” he said. “I don’t think there are any bad motives on anybody’s part — it’s just a difference of opinion on what you’re trying to do.”

With the Judicial Ditch 11 project, the K-LR Watershed Board acted on four findings as required by state statute in mid-December, thus moving the project toward the next step in the process. Viewers are anticipated to be appointed this month to begin the process of redetermining benefits on the ditch system.

A lack of qualified viewers means the process could take more than a year to complete.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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