Contractor at Work
New heights: Advanced tiling and trenching profile
Four generations of farm drainage.
December 18, 2020 By Madeleine Baerg
If Roy L. Yoder were alive today, he’d be justified in feeling awfully proud. More than seven decades after he started one of Iowa’s first agricultural drainage businesses, three of his great grandchildren are helping lead that same family business to new heights.
Advanced Tiling and Trenching is a full-service land improvement contractor focused on farm drainage, water management and land conservation. Based out of Wellman, IA, Advanced is owned and operated by siblings Alyssa, Lincoln and Cameron Yoder, together with support from past-owners (and parents) Shaun and Kristyn Yoder.
The family business specializes mostly in shallow-depth, narrow-spaced contour drainage, ideal for the hilly ground and high-quality, eastern Iowa soil it services. Advanced offers start-to-finish, project-based custom work, however, the Yoders see their efforts as just one part in a much bigger picture.
“Our priority is whole system management: not just tiling alone but how tiling contributes alongside all the other best practices a farmer is doing,” Alyssa explains. “We want to be part of the farmer’s conversation about best management practices.”
Drainage has changed significantly since Shaun joined his own father in the family business in the late 1970s.
“There have been phenomenal improvements over the years,” Shaun says. “We spend a lot of time talking about and thinking about improvements we could make and better ways we could do things.”
First, there’s the obvious installation speed increase. As a 14-year-old, Shaun laid clay tile by hand using a hook. At first, he could lay seven to 10 feet per minute. That soon increased to 20 feet per minute. Today, Advanced is trenching a mile and a quarter per hour, thanks to horsepower increases and other improvements Shaun has made to the SAMSON trenchers he designs, manufactures, and sells.
It’s not just speed that has increased. When Shaun started, their trencher was able to lay up to a 12-inch pipe. Currently, Advanced is completing a project with a 36-inch dual wall pipe, and the trencher still has potential to go bigger. That’s good news for farmers in terms of both flexibility and efficiency.
Patterning has changed too. When Shaun worked alongside his father, most of their projects involved random tiling. Today, the majority of projects are pattern tiled, using small to large patterns and with much closer spacing than ever before.
When Shaun worked alongside his father, most of their projects involved random tiling. Today, the majority of projects are pattern tiled, using small to large patterns and with much closer spacing than ever before.
Together, these changes translate to more effective drainage, improved land and water conservation and – ultimately – higher returns to producers.
“A lot of the focus used to be on ways tiling made farming easier to do, some of which improved production, some of which didn’t. Now, we’re focused on a whole farm strategy where tiling is used to reduce erosion, increase water quality and, most importantly, put more bushels in the farmer’s bin,” Shaun says.
The concept of conservation is much more than a trendy buzz word to the Yoders: it’s a priority they work towards every day.
“Conservation is not a political issue: it’s vital to life and to the future of food production,” Kristyn says. “Conservation is the goal; we’re just the tool.”
While bureaucrats and newly book-trained technicians still accuse drainage of being environmentally problematic, the Yoders believe it is the key to soil and water health.
“A lot of people have been told drainage is bad. In reality, shallow-depth, narrow spaced, contour drainage can reduce nitrates by 30 percent. By limiting erosion, [for example] we have places with 25 percent slope where we’ve eliminated sheet erosion, rill erosion, ephemeral gullies, we can reduce phosphorus run-off. With proper design and installation, drainage offers huge conservation benefits,” Shaun says.
The family isn’t willing to sit back and allow drainage to be criticized or – worse – conservation to be further regulated by legislators unfamiliar with farming realities. As such, the Yoders are committed to investing in industry leadership and advocacy.
“It’s a new generation of conservation work and there are new government requirements. We try to develop strong relationships with state and federal authorities, our government representatives and other decision makers so we can advocate for the best practices that allow our customers to be successful,” Alyssa says. “If we don’t shape the conversation, someone else will. But, unlike us, they probably haven’t spent a lot of time three, four, five feet below the surface of our area’s soil.”
“If we don’t shape the conversation, someone else will. But, unlike us, they probably haven’t spent a lot of time three, four, five feet below the surface of our area’s soil.”
To that end, Alyssa currently serves as Iowa LICA’s southeast district vice president. It’s a hat she’s particularly proud to wear, given that her great grandfather, Roy L. Yoder, was a founding member of Iowa’s chapter of LICA back in the 1940s. It’s also a hat she suggests others try on.
“I encourage other contractors to participate in their local LICA chapters. You get out of the association what you put into it, and your involvement is important for future conservation contractors. Get to know your fellow contractors and agency leaders.”
A family business
Advanced Tiling and Trenching is a family business through and through. Shaun and Kristyn homeschooled their four children, including them in the business as part of their schooling from young ages. Today, each sibling plays a critical role.
“Each of the kids has a different strength they bring to the business,” Kristyn says. “Cameron is a natural on bulldozers – he has been since he was five and drove an excavator across the field. Lincoln can fix any vehicle on the place and he’s incredible with customer service. Alyssa is gifted on the design side. And [fourth sibling] Mikaela is focused on the medical side: giving us stern warnings for safety and patching us up when necessary. Each person has been able to use their gifts and talents to make our business stronger and better.”
What draws the newest generation to the business? Is it being outside, determining the shape of one’s own day, working together with family, or connecting with farmers?
“Yes, yes and yes. Yes to all of it,” Alyssa says. “Our parents really exemplified to us that work isn’t a bad thing; that it can actually be fun. There are days that are hard: days that your boot gets a hole in it, that it’s 30 F out and you’re freezing. But overall, we all choose to have an attitude of enjoying what we do.”
“There are days that are hard: days that your boot gets a hole in it, that it’s 30 F out and you’re freezing. But overall, we all choose to have an attitude of enjoying what we do.”
The Yoders are particularly proud that the business allows them a connection back to older generations of their family and a very long-term perspective on their business.
“We’re still tying into some tile lines that my grandfather and great grandfather put in years ago,” Alyssa shares. “Repeat business is how we’ve stayed in business for so long. It’s not just about today or about one job. It’s about year after year after year.”
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