Drainage Contractor

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Living on the edge

Increasing the adoption of edge-of-field practices

June 17, 2024  By Jack Kazmierski


"Batch and build" initiatives have helped jumpstart the installation of more complex projects. Image courtesy of Matt Helmers

With growing concerns about climate change and water quality, edge-of-field practices are coming into sharper focus since they’re designed to slow, filter, and process both surface and subsurface runoff from farm fields.

“Leading at the Edge,” a report published in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, the Meridian Institute and the Soil and Water Conservation Society, outlines some of the benefits of edge-of-field practices: 

“In agricultural watersheds with extensive subsurface drainage networks, tile drains are a significant pathway for nitrate and dissolved phosphorus loss. Conservation drainage practices such as bioreactors, saturated buffers, and constructed wetlands are designed to intercept tile flow and provide the conditions needed for nutrient assimilation and retention.”

The report explains that once these practices are put into place, they require little hands-on management. “In addition to their water quality benefits,” the report explains, “many edge-of-field practices can provide additional ecosystem service benefits including carbon storage, pollinator and wildlife habitat, flood water storage, and streambank stabilization.”

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Widespread adoption
Although the benefits of edge-of-field practices are clear, North American farmers aren’t jumping on the bandwagon in large numbers just yet – at least not in numbers large enough for us to see the desired impact on our environment.

Putting these practices in place on a larger scale will take time, and most experts agree that we need more awareness, more incentives and more financial resources.

“I think we need more education about the importance of these practices, and the need for these practices,” says Matt Helmers, professor in ag and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, and director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center. “We also need to create a sense of urgency, and we need to make people aware that there is a problem with water quality, and that we need to do something about it.”

Raising awareness is the first step in a long process. “There’s still the hurdle of how to implement these practices most efficiently,” adds Helmers. “If someone says they want a bioreactor, saturated buffer, wetland or controlled drainage, then how do we make it easy for them to do that? I think that’s a barrier to adoption in many cases.”

The challenge, argues Helmers, is that paperwork and bureaucracy can get in the way. “They don’t want to wait a year or 18 months to get this in place,” he explains. ‘They want to see it happen quickly, and in certain cases, there’s just too much red tape.”

Another hurdle, says Helmers, is money. “In some cases, the finances aren’t there for the cost share,” he adds. “We are very fortunate in Iowa, because we have a state agency that understands the importance of these practices, and has put a lot of resources in place. But I wouldn’t say that’s the case across the board as we look at the whole Upper Midwest. So, I do think that in many cases, there’s a need for greater investment in these practices.”

An open house at Farmamerica, an agriculture outreach facility near Waseca, MN, observing a controlled drainage system.
Image courtesy of Stu Fraseur

Stick versus carrot
The question about widespread adoption of edge-of-field practices often boils down to the need for incentives vs. the need for more laws. In other words, which approach will convince more individuals to pay attention to the need for these practices?

“Our current framework is a voluntary approach, and I foresee that it will stay that way for quite some time,” says Helmers. “I think under our current framework, we need more incentives and more opportunities to make this as efficient as possible.”

Stu Frazeur, board chairman for the Minnesota Land Improvement Contractors of America (MNLICA) says that while education is a must, there are times when appealing to benefits can be even more compelling.

“What I find is that there are some farmers who are looking at the situation and they see bioreactors and the saturated buffers, which fall in a different category because they really don’t see results from those with the naked eye,” explains Frazeur. “It’s an easy sell for tile, because people look and say, ‘Man, you put that in, now my crops are growing great!’ The desaturated buffers and the bioreactors are more of a hard sell.”

As far as education goes, Frazeur believes that there’s a need to educate everyone involved, not just the farmers. “We held a big field day back in 2014,” he recalls, “And it was attended by quite a few NRCS people, which is good, because they’re the ones who need to see how this works.”

The better informed everyone is, the more likely we can move ahead collectively towards the greater implementation of edge-of-field practices, argues Frazeur, offering the following scenario as an example: “My thinking is that when people go to get a permit, the local government unit can say, ‘Have you thought about a saturated buffer? Have you thought about this or that option?’ And then we can start talking about some of those structures and some of those edge-of-field treatments.”

Frazeur believes that there’s more than one way to spread the word about best practices. “We need to piggyback on events farmers are already attending,” he explains. “When we have seed meetings, we can take 10 or 15 minutes and talk about how to control drainage, for example. And we really need more farmer-to-farmer discussions, where the early adopters explain the benefits to others.”

Strength in numbers
While educating individual farmers is key to promoting edge-of-field best practices, more ground can be covered with a collaborative approach. Keegan Kult, executive director of the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition (ADMC) is part of a “batch and build” initiative in Polk County, IA.

“Instead of working with one individual landowner at a time,” explains Kult, “We looked at the whole watershed, found all the suitable outlets, and packaged them together. We also had a fiscal agent who had agreements with all the landowners. They assigned all their payment programs over to the fiscal agent, and that agent then managed the project and hired the contractors to do the actual installs.”

By assigning one individual fiscal agent to represent all the landowners and their properties, “the contractor was able to go up and down the stream and do all the installations, without having to deal with multiple decision makers,” explains Kult.

One of the other stakeholders in this project was the NRCS. “They were great partners,” adds Kult, “And they actually did a lot of the technical assistance, the design work, and updating conservation plans within Polk County.”

Projects such as bioreactors and saturated buffers are large projects – literally – and advocates agree that they can be a tough sell, because the benefits aren’t readily visible to the naked eye.
Image courtesy of Matt Helmers

Innovative strategies
During the planning phase for the batch and build initiative, Kult, along with some of the key stakeholders, decided to adopt a proactive strategy. “We decided on a direct outreach campaign, instead of waiting passively for farmers to come to us and sign up for these practices,” he explains. “Farmers have a million things going on, and it’s not that they don’t want to focus on conservation, but they’re busy, and they’re not going to come to us.”

Rather than sit by and wait, Kult and his team sent out mailers to farmers they thought might have a suitable site. “We had a model to show where the suitable sites might be in the watershed, and in our letter we explained that one of our project managers would be contacting the farmer within the next two weeks to discuss details. And that’s exactly what happened.”

The mailer strategy worked, opening the door for the team to survey over 300 outlets, 120 of which resulted in installations. “Taking on projects like this in batches makes the process more efficient,” adds Kult. “The design engineers can go out and survey 10 sites in a day instead of only two, for example, so the cost of engineering goes down because they’re able to visit so many more sites per day. It also benefits the contractor, because it probably isn’t worth their time to take themselves off a different project to work on two sites, but it does make sense when they have 20 sites to do.”

Counting the costs
While the batch and build project didn’t cost farmers anything to implement, they did have to agree to maintenance contract. “We had 100 percent cost share on this project because the benefits are downstream,” explains Kult. “So although the producers weren’t paying for the installations, they are responsible for managing them. They have to sign up for a 10-year maintenance agreement, so they do have skin in the game on that front.”

Although the success of the batch and build program in Polk Country can serve as a template for other parts of the country, Kult says that some details still have to be ironed out. “We’re looking at how we can use the approach in other areas,” he says. “So, part of the process is evaluating the infrastructure. How many people have job approval authority in that state? And what kind of state and federal financing is available?”

Kult and his team have put together a handbook that can take interested parties through the process with less mistakes and hiccups along the way. “Through a project funded by the Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship, we put together a toolkit that we can share with other potential project coordinators showing the framework of this batch and build program,” he says.

The key to success, Kult adds, is finding a “local champion,” which is someone who would be willing to spearhead the effort in each county or region. “To get things started, you need a local leader who can bring all the potential partners into a room to start the discussion,” he says. “For anyone who would be willing to do so, we have the toolkit, and we’d be more than willing to partner with them and offer guidance. We might not be able to have boots on the ground, but we definitely would help them get their project off the ground.” DC


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