Contractor at Work
From farmer to contractor
By Tony Kryzanowski
Necessity led to innovation for Slemmons Excavating.
By Tony Kryzanowski
For many farmers, there’s no question what lowering the water table on land with drainage issues can do to improve crop yield. The challenge is finding a contractor with the experience and access to specialized tools to implement a successful subsurface drainage project to help improve the land’s productivity. For Frank Slemmons, this meant purchasing his own equipment to do it himself.
Slemmons Excavating was established with a single Speicher 600 wheel trencher in the 1960s by Frank Slemmons, essentially as a complementary service to his farming operation, after recognizing that his own land required a drainage system. His son, Seth, purchased the wheel trencher and the business about 10 years ago, after he spent four years operating equipment for another construction contractor once he finished high school. Since then, Seth, his wife and company co-owner, Korie, and his brother, Aaron, have taken the business to a new level. The business started with only the brothers operating the equipment; they now have 10 employees. The business took a major leap forward in 2008 when they purchased a tile plow from a retired contractor, which helped them expand their geographical reach. The relationship they established with that contractor continues to this day and is something they consider a vital part of their business. They have also continuously upgraded the company’s fleet, adding several pieces of purpose-built equipment over the years.
At present, their fleet consists of four John Deere backhoes, two Caterpillar tracked skid loaders, a Caterpillar D5 dozer, a newer Speicher wheel trencher, two newer Inter-Drain self-propelled drainage plows and an Inter-Drain 6050 chain trencher to install large, main, smooth flow drainage pipes up to 15 inches in diameter. The smaller drainage plows are used to install smaller, lateral pipes which tie into the main drainage lines. The perforated and corrugated plastic lateral pipes are buried about three feet into the ground in a carefully designed grid pattern and typically spaced about 40 feet apart. Between 900 and 1,100 feet of lateral pipes are typically installed per acre.
Projects and Processes
About 90 percent of the company’s work consists of subsurface drainage projects for agricultural clients that vary in size from produce farmers working on smaller land parcels to larger farms of up to 10,000 acres. Projects range in size from five to 500 acres. In addition to constructing subsurface drainage projects for agricultural customers, Slemmons Excavating and Drainage offers waterway and wetlands construction commercial site prep, pond construction, and general excavating.
Over the past decade, the company has introduced advanced tools, such as GPS topographical mapping and customized drainage plans, to offer more precision to their customers.
The first step is to meet with a customer, identify the parcel of land, and then find out what the farmer’s drainage objectives are for that parcel. Given their experience with subsurface drainage, the company can at this point offer technical advice on how the farmer can best achieve his objectives. Once that has been established, the company puts its tools to work.
“We start all our projects with our own survey and design,” says Seth. “We use GPS to produce a complete topographical map of the farm. We take thousands of elevation readings across a field to generate a drainage plan to fit each farm separately . . . we do a 50-foot grid all across that land we are looking to drain.”
Seth adds that having a well-engineered plan before burying any pipe is critical, and that the GPS topographical mapping and drainage plan have been excellent tools to help ensure that they don’t undersize their outlets and mains for the area to be drained.
“We really try hard to use the technology to get it right the first time,” he says.
The third step is to secure an outlet for the area being drained, and that may involve finding an existing outlet or creating a new one. If there is an existing ditch, it is necessary to ensure that it is a good outlet for the drainage system. They often must make adjustments to work with the existing infrastructure or lack of infrastructure to meet drainage plan objectives.
“A lot of times we are limited by the existing outlets that are there, so it’s a challenge sometimes to work with neighboring landowners and get the ditches to the point where we have a good outlet, or to gain access to replace the existing mains,” says Seth. The final step is to put the design on paper, present it to the customer with an estimated cost, and wait for a decision.
Once a project gets underway, two challenges must often be faced: the weather (which doesn’t always co-operate), and minimizing soil compaction on the jobsite.
“We try to keep our traffic more or less where we are going to lay our new pipes so that we don’t create compaction on parts of the farm that aren’t going to be disturbed,” Seth says of the latter.
Location, Location, Location
While the company works for customers primarily within an 80-mile radius of West Liberty, Ohio (about 45 minutes northwest of Columbus), last year, they took their equipment on a road trip to Mississippi. This was largely because there is growing demand for subsurface drainage work in that area, Seth says, but it also extends their business season by a couple of months. Their busiest time of year is when the crops are off the field, which, in Ohio, is from September to May.
Because crops come off sooner in southern states, Slemmons Excavating is taking advantage of this business opportunity.
Seth says the drainage infrastructure is quite different farther south than it is in Ohio. “In Mississippi, there’s very little subsurface drainage, so there aren’t all of the old mains and ditches in place to do a good job to drain each farm,” he says. “So we are working towards getting those outlets established there.”