Drainage Contractor

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LICA’s View: Food for thought

Education is key to defending against drainage’s critics.


May 5, 2015
By Steven Anderson president LICA National

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Did you enjoy your last meal? Do you even remember what you had? In this country many take food very much for granted. But then why wouldn’t we? The grocery stores have an endless supply available, and that is where food comes from, right?

This may seem like a silly thing to say, but to many, especially as each generation becomes farther removed from the land, the grocery store is food production. This is one of the reasons agriculture is facing attacks for the alleged damage it causes to our world: food is made in stores, so all this work done on the land is damaging the rest of the world. Drainage is moving to the top of that list for all the “evils” it causes: flooding, nutrient discharges and loss of wetlands. But the interesting thing about drainage is that today’s society exists because of it – not entirely, but in good part.

Food supply is the basic foundation upon which any society is raised. In our past as hunter-gatherers, the size of the band was determined by how much food could be gathered in the area roamed. Then one enterprising individual noticed a certain grass had a very tasty seed. We hit upon the idea that if we planted these seeds and removed other plants growing around them, we could have more tasty seeds. Agriculture was born. Villages became possible and the nomadic life came to an end. This is an uncomfortable truth for those who battle against genetically modified foods; we have been genetically modifying food for some 10,000 years. Today we do it faster using the latest technology instead of cross-breeding plants over generations.

Now let’s look back at a more recent time in this country’s history. Settlers moving out from the hilly east looked to the rich, flat land of the Midwest with gleams of riches in their eyes, only to find that those riches had to wait until John Deere took an old saw blade and curved it into a plow. Steel was the only metal that would scour in these rich soils because they were wet! In many level areas the soil was too wet to farm. Sure, this land was covered with lush prairie grasses tasty to vast heads of bison, but people found these grasses a bit less palatable. The foods we ate – corn, squash, wheat and vegetables – all needed a more oxygen-rich soil, which was only possible when the soil was not saturated.

In my area of LaSalle County, Ill., it was the Irish who first began draining the land. Being used to bogs and peat and otherwise high organic matter soils, they turned their eyes to the flat lands of the western part of the county. Once they finished digging the Illinois & Michigan Canal in the 1840s, they took their shovels and slip scrapers and started digging ditches, putting in tile lines and growing vast quantities of food to feed a growing nation. This was happening all over the Midwest as settlers moved in to claim their own land. One can imagine what those early tiles discharged in terms of nitrates and soluble phosphates. Research today is finding that, in buffer strips, after plant growth does not keep up with the supply of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) in the soil; the excess leaches off into the neighboring stream.

These facts about drainage are things we should know as the people who put tile lines in the ground. As misinformation is spread about the evils of drainage, we should be ready to counter with facts.

A new project in Illinois will go a long way to providing good data on what comes out of the tiles. The project, sponsored by the Corn Growers, the fertilizer people, and the University of Illinois, will pattern tile 80 acres into separate five-acre plots where only the outflow from that five acres will be measured. This will allow us to collect data over timing and rates and their effects on leaching over a short period of time.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to speak up about the value of what we do.


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