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Understanding farm water issues

Water: it’s necessary for life. But add the word “drainage” and it can also start fights

Corn prices. Why am I getting emails with those words in the subject line? Why does Gmail’s spam filter let that slip by? I’ve been telling people for a couple years now that I farm. To border guards and others who’d trust or like me more if I worked with my hands, I am a farmer. It’s not a lie, and I enjoy the title. The only person left to convince is me, apparently. We don’t grow corn. I don’t read spam. But I do subscribe to farm market newsletters. It takes a bit, but somewhere between confusion and labeling “corn prices” as spam I remember that contained in that message is content I actually find quite interesting. I’m still a famer when there’s snow on the ground. I’m still a farmer when I’m knee-deep in writing work.

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I use my city friends as archetypes in this column. They don’t mind. I don’t ask them. But I know they’d say, “Toban, you can make us look as ridiculous and as one-sided as you like.” Thanks, guys. I hear their perspectives on matters most farmers have hard, opposing attitudes toward. Corn prices isn’t one of them. But water is.

Water issues

Water: It’s full of pesticides, phosphorous, and pure evil, and it drains into Lake Winnipeg, threatening freshwater plants and animals. I don’t know enough about the issue to comment, other than to say, city friends, relax about the pure evil business. A: I doubt pure evil exists in water, and B: us farmers aren’t bad people.

Here’s what I knew about water before returning to the farm: The right-hand tap is cold, and the left-hand hot. It comes from underground pipes, aquifers, wells, and water-treatment facilities; more a mashup of all the water-related keywords I know. Some municipalities still put fluoride in it, and that’s controversial. It’s necessary for plants to grow, and not everyone has access to potable reserves of it, which is terrible. I also knew that our farm gets water from a well. Oh yeah, and I knew about pH. We had a hot tub in our backyard in Winnipeg.

What I’ve learned since then can be summed up in one word: drainage. It begins with mapping out a watershed, an area the entirety of which drains to the same place. Then the plan: each ditch and culvert will have to guide water spilling of fields, yards, and roads to that place, easing it around or under provincial highways, homes, and the gravel roads us farmers use every day.

At the farm level, or, rather, the rural municipality level, drainage is rubber-meets-the-road politics. And it matters. The Prairies have received more than average amounts of precipitation the last couple of years. And the provincial governments in charge have scrambled for ways to make the headlines read something positive; something re-electable. Winnipeg can open its floodway to divert water away from the city’s residential areas. And, last year, Brandon was forced to build dykes as floodwaters threatened the city.

Water has to go somewhere, I’ve learned. Our farm has invested in surface drainage. Companies using GPS mapping technology — old news, I know — have cut and trenched veins and ditches into our fields, the benefits of which have long paid for the work.

Politicians and others quick to point a finger will say surface drainage work on fields increases the amount of pesticide and phosphorous runoff that will, in some cases, find its way to aquifers and Lake Winnipeg. The crowd goes quiet. “No, not Lake Winnipeg!” My advice: learn to recognize political gesturing. And there are alternatives to surface drainage.

Most plants cannot grow sitting in a pool of water. They need to breathe. And here it is, a buried lead: “why do you think they put holes in flower pots?”

On a recent trip to Ontario, a specialist talking about the benefits of tile drainage asked me this, rhetorically, thank goodness. I would have said something, but it wouldn’t have been correct. There’s this thing called tile drainage. It’s relatively new to Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Implementing it. Calling someone to come install it on your field is a risk, and probably a break from tradition. Full disclosure: I don’t deal with change well, either. But on a real basic level, it’s nifty technology.

Work with me. You’ve got a watershed, complete with ditches, culverts, and veiny fields. But instead of veiny fields you’ve got drainage pipe buried under your topsoil, deeper than the reach of your cultivator. Your roots will be able to breath, your topsoil won’t runoff after a downpour, and all the water flowing out the exit pipe into a municipally-planned ditch will have been ground filtered.

There are parts of southern Ontario where nearly three quarters of all agricultural land is tile drained. It’s what farmers do there. Land can sell for between 15 and $20,000 per acre, so the up-front investment in drainage tile is “a no-brainer,” said one producer.

A couple of years ago I chatted with a machinery representative about trends and changes to tractors and implements. He said change needs to roll out slowly. We have accepted auto-steer, but we’re not yet ready to embrace robotics, even though that technology may increase productivity and efficiency.

Tile drainage and drainage, in general, has made headlines over a large-scale push to preserve wetlands. I don’t hate wetlands. I don’t think progress means trampling over, or, in this case, draining, whatever stands between me and an extra dollar in my pocket. I think stewardship is important. But I think change is, too. And I don’t think those involved in surface or sub-surface drainage want to get rid of wetlands.

“If people are interested in being good stewards, then they should do everything in their power to promote tile drainage,” said the Ontario specialist.

I get it. It’s putting pipe into a field. It makes sense. My city friends would call this tampering. Fair enough. But tampering isn’t an argument anymore. We do it all the time, in every industry, in every part of the world, in almost every pocket of history. Tampering, as loosely defined as the term is used, is necessary.

We need to maximize our yields to meet food-production demands. Drainage is key to making this happen. It’s also a fascinating, basic phenomenon. Take a step back, and think about it.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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