By Peter Lewington
History does repeat itself!
By Peter Lewington
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the 1973 edition of Drainage Contractor, written by founding editor Peter Lewington.
Drainage technology has come of age with more innovations in recent years than in all previous history. Many astute farmers, having acquired additional land, ensure that the land drainage is good before they plant a crop. But, some farmers have yet to appreciate the profit that drainage can bring; The Ontario Select Committee On Land Drainage even found it necessary in 1973 to advocate additional drainage demonstrations. Despite instant electronic communications, the good news about drainage has taken a long time to percolate.
The Mesopotamians of 9,000 years ago were probably the first farmers to appreciate the value of water management.
The Romans, before the birth of Chris, knew that poor drainage meant poor crops; they left behind them evidence of open and covered stone and clay tile drains.
But somehow, the world forgot about drainage benefits until the subject was revived by the initiative of the British parliament in the 18th century.
The “Rudimentary Treatise On The Drainage Of Lands” published in 1854 describes drainage as “A new branch of practical art, based upon principles of science and essential to the health, life and morality of our race.”
The author well understood the relationship of drainage affected, not only root development but also crop yields. He warned that vermin could destroy drain outlets and recorded the essential specifications for successful drainage systems.
“The Canadian Home, Farm and Business Cyclopedia,” published long before the prairie provinces became a part of Canada, had sound advice which is relevant today. The authors, writing when only a fraction of Canada had been developed for agriculture, advocated environment-controlled livestock buildings, hospital pens for sick animals and even advice on handling liquid manure.
The authors noted the depth and intervals between tile drains that are desirable in various soil types; they dwelt on the function of laterals, mains and drainage outlets.
And if you have wasted time hunting for a drain, remember this advice, given the better part of a century ago: “On the completion of every kind of drainage works, means should at once be taken to have the lines of drains accurately laid down upon a plan, having a scale of not less than 100 feet to the inch. The plans connected with each farm ought to be bound up as a book of reference.”
The Cycolopedia’s “Practical benefits due to land drainage” are so appropriate today they could have been written yesterday. Effective drainage means not only an earlier harvest but a more abundant harvest. Good drainage makes it possible for timely tillage and the spreading of manure without compacting the land. Well-drained soils produce better quality crops and give a wider choice of crops.
The way in which drainage improves soil aeration and the ways in which this benefits crops in diverse seasons were included in this formidable list of drainage benefits. These benefits also included better germination, which reduced the amount of seed required.
Your own checklist of drainage benefits might include aeration of the soil, the paradox that drains are beneficial in both wet and dry years, the relationship of drains to tillage, even-ripening and winter survival of such crops as alfalfa.
History does indeed repeat itself; the world learned the lessons of drainage, forgot them – only to learn them afresh. With the delicate balance between population and food supplies, the world of the latter part of the 20th century must seize all of the benefits that drainage brings to both productive soils – and some currently unprofitable soils.