Drainage Management Systems
Cranberry production in Wisconsin dates back nearly 150 years, and the berry’s sense of tradition is certainly well defined on festive dining-room tables during Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. Still, at a time when farmers are looking to maximize production and reduce any impacts on the environment, one drainage contractor is doing all that is possible for both scenarios.For Kevin Ellingson of Ellingson Drainage, based in West Concord in neighboring Minnesota, the 2009 season provided something of a learning curve, particularly where cranberry bogs are concerned. Although the concept is not revolutionary, the process and equipment used required a greater degree of specificity and precision. “With the cranberry bogs, there’s nothing really special about the way they were constructed,” explains Ellingson. There may be nothing special to the construction but the fact that the bogs must be flooded in order to harvest the berries means there are specific issues to be understood. “Essentially, farmers used the land under there the way it was, maybe put in a small amount of drainage in the wet spots or spots that were troublesome.”With the bog that Ellingson Drainage worked on in 2009, the farmer, owner of Horizon Cranberry, hired the engineering firm of Lampert-Lee & Associates of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, to provide the blueprint. A modification of the design called for the actual switching of layers beneath the cranberry plants, with a few in-ground enhancements. The plan for the bog had three basic goals: maintain moisture levels for the plants during the growing season; install a topsoil liner to reduce water needed for flooding and install drainage tile to remove the water once the harvest was complete. “That third goal is definitely one of the reasons for the drain tile, but it’s really more than that,” says Larry Koopman of Lampert-Lee & Associates. “It’s very important to get the water off the beds during rainfall events, and many growers in 2010 were having a tremendous amount of fruit rot in the crop, particularly on beds that don’t have adequate drainage.”Koopman could not overemphasize the importance of this third goal; if water covers the bed during the heat of summer, it can quite literally cook the fruit and render the crop useless to the grower.The design and the challengesIn most of the bogs in Wisconsin, cranberries are grown in sand. Traditionally, the topsoil is taken off, the beds are levelled, and in some cases, they can be cut further down in the sand to get the bed elevation closer to the local water table. “What was different on what we did was that we took that topsoil off, and then undercut the beds down to the elevation needed, so that the surface was where we wanted it to be,” details Koopman. “Then we put six inches of topsoil underneath, and most of that had to do with the fact we can’t build cranberry bogs in areas where they traditionally did, which is in wetland areas.”Cranberries are a wetland plant and need water close by the roots, but not actually in the water, which is why drainage tiles are advantageous. With the environmental concerns, Koopman and Ellingson combined their skills to replicate the necessary conditions for cranberries by creating artificial wetlands, complete with a layer of topsoil to trap the water in the sand above them, which helps in flooding the berries for the harvest. “But they also flood in the winter time, to put a layer of ice on top of the vines, to protect them from the winter environment,” says Koopman. “Then they actually drive on top of the ice and spread a layer of sand, and when that melts, it pins the vines down and helps them to grow.”It can be challenging in natural sand soil, to flood up, be it for harvest or for winter flood, because the sand is very permeable. Reversing the layers means the topsoil below slows down the water and holds it in the bed. “It does such a good job of holding it in the bed, that now we can’t get rid of the water, so that’s one of the reasons for putting the drain tile in,” says Koopman. Another benefit of the drainage tile was that it helped redistribute the water around the cranberry bed, so the water was more uniform, whether it was coming from rainfall, irrigation or from putting on a flood for harvest. When it came to the actual ground work, Ellingson explains that the topsoil was stripped from the bog, followed by the same process to strip between 18 and 24 inches of sand. The topsoil was then laid back down to a depth of six inches to form a type of liner. Then the sand was brought back in and replaced to a depth of 14 to 18 inches. “The bogs we were working on were 160 feet wide and a quarter of a mile long,” says Ellingson, adding that there were 23 beds for Horizon Cranberry. “And we put this tile in every 10 feet on center with these bogs, so we ended up with 16 quarter-mile lines per bog.”Koopman adds that the topsoil was crowned four inches from the center of the bed to the outside edges of the bed, just to provide some positive drainage underneath the sand layer below the drain tile. Another minor hurdle lay in convincing the crew with Ellingson Drainage to lay the tiles perfectly flat. “That flies in the face of everything they normally do, because they put them at a pitch to provide more capacity to carry water away,” says Koopman. “If they lay them flat, they don’t drain very well, but in this particular case, that’s what they absolutely needed to have happen.”Connections and equipmentAt each end of the bog, the Ellingson Drainage crew dug-in 12-inch dual wall tiles as the main. “We dug those in first, and then plowed four-inch sock tile laterals from end to end, and connected each four-inch lateral down into the 12-inch dual wall main,” details Ellingson. “So within each bog, we ended up with 16 lines, all tied into the main on each end, and in between that, they were putting in four irrigation lines.”Now complete, Horizon Cranberry has an ideal system that makes it easier to keep the plants moist while keeping the root system dry enough to reduce the risk of any kind of rotting.As for equipment needs, Ellingson’s crew employed a custom-designed, refitted Ditch Witch vibrating plow. “We took the vibrating plow off and we built a tiling plow,” he says. “We needed to custom-build a tile plow to fit the specific needs of this project because these lines are so close together and you can’t have a standard-sized drainage plow in there. These lines only go in 13 inches deep, so you have to stay above that soil liner that they’re putting in there; you don’t want to penetrate that.”
New technologies can help future-proof this country’s agricultural drainage contractors against any downturns ahead, helping them diversify into a potentially profitable high-growth sector. Maintaining sportsturf, from golf grounds to athletics fields and race courses, can reduce their dependency on the agricultural industry and its inherent ups and downs.Increasing numbers of European contractors have successfully made similar moves, and are getting out of their crowded agricultural market after having established healthy, strong growth, sportsturf maintenance-based businesses.This side of the Atlantic, one man already exploiting the potential is Michigan-based Dennis Rector. His entry into the sportsturf world is so successful he has changed his company name, from Rector Farm Drainage to Water Management Specialists Inc., to help underscore the new thrust of his business.If you are already thinking it cannot be as easy as waking up one morning and deciding to move out of corn and into golf courses, you are right.It involves devoting time and effort to showing potential new customers that you are offering them a whole new way of dealing with their problems, a way that can save them time, hassle and money, while producing better playing surfaces for their customers.Dennis Rector has been there and is reaping the benefits of doing just that. Unhappy with long-term growth prospects for his agricultural drainage business, he began looking for a new direction. He looked to changing trends in Europe, where growing numbers of contractors were switching to sportsturf and, with the help of emerging technologies and equipment developed specifically for that market, were experiencing much better margins than they could have hoped to achieve by working for farmers.He began importing their techniques and equipment and has not looked back since. Today his company is thriving and he is convinced that it will provide his sons, and perhaps their sons, with good, solid futures. Currently about half of its business comes from agri-industry customers and half from sportsturf maintenance, with the latter increasing all the time and yielding the better margins.Importantly for stability, it now has legs in two separate industries, with obvious benefits should one of those industries hit particularly hard times.Naturally, he has encountered problems but with a positive approach, both he and his business have become stronger and better equipped with each challenge overcome. “Typically we now work with country clubs, high schools and colleges, and for people running local community sports fields,” says Rector. “Building trust and relationships is crucial, and clients frequently come to regard us as advisors and partners, as well as drainage contractors. Being first in the field with something new is great, but persuading people to buy into it can be difficult.“We had to work hard at first on convincing people to embrace new advances in drainage systems, even though much of the basics had already been developed, tried and perfected in Europe over many years,” adds Rector. “Difficulties have usually revolved around convincing clients that advancements in drainage designs and systems have been made which far outstretch the antiquated designs of the past – which have been proven not to live up to their expectations. Architects and owners can tend to cling to the familiar, only knowing what has been done in the past. Sometimes they only want a quick fix to a small area, and do not look at the bigger picture and realize that problems and failures of the system can all be corrected at one time.”Building close local ties a plusRector has developed a close and beneficial working relationship with Gerry Korb from Port Industries, a company importing the latest specialist sportsturf equipment from the UK’s Shelton Sportsturf Drainage Solutions Ltd., a European leader in its market.Simply taking agricultural-scale equipment and methods onto sports fields will rarely win new friends, or repeat business. Most turf managers will expect, and demand, that a contractor drain today so that their customers can play tomorrow. Using the right equipment and technology Rector meets that demand time and time again. “A country club prides itself on its pristine, manicured fairways, and our equipment has to be tailored to minimize the disruption and damage caused,” explains Rector. “Traditional techniques involve digging trenches up to two feet wide with excavators, often leaving the facility unusable for weeks or months. With modern specialist equipment a drainage system can be installed with minimal disturbance, so that it is back in play almost immediately.”Solving problems for two important golf clubs gave him a new image, overnight, as a turf drainage expert, with huge benefits to his business prospects. “I had not been allowed to bid on one contract because I was ‘only an agricultural drainage contractor.’ Two months later the same consultant was asking my advice as a sportsturf drainage expert.”His employees like the new work and are motivated to produce the best results, greatly assisting his drive to provide the best service in their area.An essential part of his inventory is a Shelton Supertrencher 625. Laser guided for ultimate accuracy, it is tractor mounted and uses circular saw type action to cut exceptionally clean, narrow trenches with surplus spoil going straight into a trailer running alongside.The results have to be seen to be believed and, as the pictures show, really do enable him to deliver on his “drain today and play tomorrow” offer. *Mick Claxton is the general manager for Shelton Sportsturf Drainage Solutions, based in Lincolnshire, England.
Success is part of the word succession. So why is it that as a business practice, succession planning probably ranks somewhere below filing tax returns?Is it that some aging businesspeople have completed the process? Not according to government surveys and industry observers, particularly in fields such as drainage contracting. In fact, the industry runs a rather interesting parallel to the agriculture industry in both Canada and the US. In 1999, a Canadian federal government committee identified farm succession as an immediate concern to the country’s agri-food industry. At a provincial level, ministries hurriedly organized seminars and workshops, and the subject began to appear on the agendas of annual meetings of farm groups and organizations.Eleven years later, the Canadian farmer is only slightly better prepared for what lies ahead. It has fallen off the radar noticeably, in part due to a general awareness, followed by apathy, but also because the business of farming dictates attention be paid to the day-to-day farming operations. In Canada, it is notably higher in rank compared to the US, possibly because of the smaller population base involved in agriculture.Drainage imitates agriculture on many levelsSince drainage is largely reliant on the success of farming, it seems likely that drainage contractors are facing the same scenario. And the parallels are quite astounding: Both industries are aging, both are having a tough time attracting new partners and younger participants, both involve higher capital costs at the point of entry into their respective trades, and both are a complex blend of art-form and science, without a one-stop, comprehensive resource to help point the way to success. The only difference might be the Canada versus US perspective, where again, population base arguably has a greater impact on the Canadian situation.In the US drainage industry, there already has been a succession of the business during the past 40 years, one that has seen a concentration of contractors shift from local to regional. “Back in the 1950s, we virtually had a drainage contractor in every township in this county,” says Leonard Binstock, executive director of the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition, in Owatonna, Minnesota. “The contractor would start out on a farm in the spring, and put in maybe 3000 or 4000 feet on a farm, and the farmer across the fence would say, ‘While you’re here, I have a couple of wet spots here,’ and they’d just drive across the fence line and, sometimes, they just moved from farm to farm. Currently, we have one drainage contractor in our county, and he does all the work, probably twice as much from a productivity standpoint.”In the process, adds Binstock, they eliminated 20 or more contractors, all of whom were sole proprietorships, so attrition has done what a lack of succession planning might have caused. Mike Schwieterman has seen much the same effect in his home state of Ohio. Like Binstock, he is not panicked by the dwindling numbers that he has seen during his 40 to 45 years in the business. “I’ve seen 20 to 40 contractors that came in and out of the business, and there are still enough contractors,” says Schwieterman. He acknowledges there are some slow times in one year or another. “But there’s never a problem with not getting the work done by somebody; I’ve never seen it where we’re so overloaded that you’d have to be on a waiting list for two years.”For Canadian contractors, any shortage from attrition or succession may be offset by the level of certification required to enter the drainage industry, or it can hurt the potential for the newer start-ups. For Gerald Neeb, a drainage contractor from Clinton, Ontario, the certification offers some assurances, but in the case of his own succession planning, his son is a partner in the business. Still, he acknowledges the impact of upgrading with new technology, and despite the efficiencies they create, they also compound the issue of the labour demand they need to fill on a daily basis. “On a day when it’s raining, guys want to go home, and we try to work through it if we can, because there are only so many days left until freeze-up,” says Neeb. Minding today’s success, not tomorrow’s successionThe biggest challenge for drainage contractors, again, as it is with agriculture, is the here-and-now: contractors have to make money and mind their operations. For many, that means having to grapple with growers who might opt for less expensive rates, or needing to install more feet of drainage tile in order to make annual budgets. They may not be able to focus on the hard-to-conceive issues of tomorrow, having to concentrate on today’s realities of staying busy. “It’s frustrating that we do the extra work as far as surveying and design and the GPS, and there are still the clientele who are only interested in the bottom dollar,” states Jon Seevers, who operates Seevers Farm Drainage in Argenta, Illinois. He also cites the continued disconnect between farmers and the benefits of drainage, and the perception that any machine in the field laying pipe must be doing it right. “One advantage you have in Canada is the certification process, which is not the case in the States. So we’re talking about changing that, and with the LICA association, we’d like to self-govern and regulate our members and offer a credential that’s worth something.”But costs are also climbing and contractors are having to deal with tightening margins and higher energy costs. “We’re no different than farmers; we love what we do, but we’ll worry about paying our bills a little later,” says Neeb, citing prices from the mid-1970s of 17.5 cents per foot. “But today, I’m fighting to charge 22 cents, and everything has tripled. When we first started with the plows, our goal at the end of the year was to put in between 900,000 and a million feet, and we usually had a profit of about $50,000. Now, you need to put in a million and a quarter just to break even.”The same is true for Schwieterman, whose father started the business and did not have a wealth of equipment, but a few employees to make things work. “Then he got four of his children involved, bought more equipment, and now we have more crews running and eventually went from half a million to a million feet of pipe in a year, and now we’re up to 4.5 to 5.5 million feet a year,” he says.The art and science of ‘tug-of-war’Of all the challenges, perhaps the most difficult to overcome is the fact that there is no hard-and-fast resource, no textbook that defines drainage contracting; it is very much a hands-on, learn-by-doing craft, much like agriculture, with a knowledge base that can take years to acquire and incorporate into an operation. “I live in an area here where there are some soil types that are very productive,” explains Binstock, referring to his location in Minnesota where contractors regularly deal with a layer of yellow clay. Local contractors likely understand where that clay lies in a field. Hiring a contractor from outside of the region might earn some savings, but if the system is installed too deep, the tiles will fill with that yellow clay and the perceived savings could turn into a staggering cost. “It’s something you’ve learned; that unseen knowledge that you can’t get out of a book, something you’ve learned from working with the soils.”The final wordIn terms of highlighting the issue of succession planning, some people may consider accessing a government grant, while others, like Seevers, take the self-determination approach, preferring to steer the boat instead of being dragged behind it.Ultimately, some contractors on either side of the border have found their own solution to the issue of farm succession: their children or some branch of the family are involved, as in the case of both Neeb and Schwieterman. Seevers would like to see a more proactive approach from organizations like LICA, to advance the certification issue, as a means of standardizing the industry. And Binstock is in the early stages of exiting the industry, as well, attempting to determine what he wants and where he is at in his life, after farming, and after working in drainage. “It’s time to slow down; I’m not going to say retire, but I want to change how I schedule my days,” he says. “I think the first thing that we need to do is recognize the fact that we’re playing the “Back 9” in life, and that’s the toughest thing for people to do. But once they recognize that, then some of the other things fall into place.”
OLICA demonstrates the design and installation of field drainage structures at Farm Science Review.
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