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Vt. farms invest in tile drainage to boost crops - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. farms invest in tile drainage to boost crops

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ENOSBURGH, Vt. -

When you see this big tracked vehicle in a farm field, you probably wonder what's that?

"It is a plow that pulls a big iron spade and the pipe goes through that," said Ron Machia, Sheldon dairy farmer and co-owner of tiling machine.

But huge plows are showing up at more and more Vermont farms, installing underground drainage pipes called tiles.

"And as you travel, it just lays it in the ground, all in one motion until you hit a rock like that and you got to dig it out and stop," said Machia.

Larry Gervais has 1,800 dairy cows on farms in Enosburgh and Bakersfield. He says his family is always looking for ways to increase output on the 3,000 acres where they grow corn and hay. Gervais says tiling fields is showing promise.

"When you tile, it allows you to... it helps the soil health in my opinion for one thing. It is letting the water travel through the soil quicker. It lets the roots of your plants go into the soil deeper and uptake more nutrients that are already there," said Gervais.

Tiling costs about $1,000 an acre, but Machia says it boosts crop output by 30 percent or more, without increasing fertilizer.

In Franklin County, new farming practices like this are increasingly looked at for their environmental impact as well as their agricultural benefits. The state is worried about farm runoff's role in algae problems that have plagued northern Lake Champlain.

This year the Legislature recognized how little is known about the environmental impact of tile drainage systems. Right now they're not regulated. In the water quality bill they passed, lawmakers directed the Agency of Agriculture to report back in two years with recommendations for managing tile drainage systems.

"I know there are some studies being done on phosphorus moving through the tile ends quicker than it should and going into waterways. With the water quality bill in Vermont I know they are starting to do studies for that," said Gervais. 

Denise Smith, executive director of Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, came to the Gervais field to see the tiling machine in action.

"We like to say we aren't opposed to tile drainage and we aren't for tile drainage. We would just like to know more information about what is happening in the water that is coming out at the ends of the tiles," said Smith.

Smith has been concerned that the state has no information about the extent of tile drainage use on Vermont farms.

"And currently there is no regulation, there is no permitting that is required to install the tiles and so there is really not even a good sense of how much, how many of the fields in Vermont have been tiled," said Smith.

Vermont farmers only recently jumped into tiling fields, but New York and Midwestern farmers have been doing it for decades. Agricultural researcher Eric Young says technology has changed a lot since the late 1800s when John Johnston brought the idea from Scotland to his farm in Seneca, New York.

"Today's tile drainage is plastic tubing, slotted plastic tubing. These sections of old clay tile are some of the original designs that were used back at the turn of the century," said Young. 

Young studies tile drainage at Miner Institute in Chazy, New York. While researchers used to study how the practice impacted crop yield and farm economics, the focus now is on its environmental impact.

"But in our area phosphorus, the nutrient phosphorus is a little bit more important from a water quality standpoint with the eutrophication in Lake Champlain, so we are really zoning in on phosphorus as well and trying to look at how tile drains impact the routing of runoff water through the surface and through the subsurface of the soil and how that carries or transports nutrients like phosphorus or nitrate," said Young.

Young's research shows that 85 percent to 90 percent of the water on tiled fields will move through the drainage system rather than run off the surface.

"I don't think our research is going to, you know, quickly return an answer about whether tile or good or bad. I think it is more of a site-specific call," said Young.

Gervais remains optimistic that installing tile drains in fields will turn about to be not only good for farmers but good for the environment, too.

"If your crop is taking up the nutrients it is not going into the lakes and streams. It is not our intention for that," said Gervais.

Gervais and Smith agree that farmers are as eager as lake advocates to get answers about the environmental impacts of tiling systems.

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