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Renville County continuing to see rapid growth in drain tile

Larry Zupke, ditch inspector for Renville County, said consecutive wet years took a toll. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

OLIVIA -- Farmers in Renville County installed what may be a record amount of sub-surface tile lines to improve cropland drainage in the last year.

Back-to-back "wet''' years and the rapid growth in private tiling is straining the public drainage systems that ultimately carry that water to the Minnesota River and Crow River.

The growth of farm drainage to improve productivity became the focus as ProAg of Renville County hosted a forum on water quality as part of its annual meeting Tuesday in Olivia.

Contractors installed roughly 8 million feet of drain tile, or roughly 1,500 miles, in Renville County last year.

Larry Zupke, ditch inspector for the county, said he contacted contractors he knew to be working in the county to obtain the estimated total of line added last year.

The county does not have a formal permit process for installing tile, and consequently does not keep a tally on how much tile line is added, or where. In general, landowners are eligible to drain lands into public systems if they are assigned benefits as part of the systems, he said.

The county oversees 780 miles of open ditches and 3,500 miles of sub-surface drain tile.

Zupke said consecutive wet years have taken a toll. Last year the county's maintenance costs for the public ditch systems exceeded $1.5 million. When Zupke began his role as ditch inspector 15 to 16 years ago, annual maintenance costs were within the range of $250,000 to $350,000.

A decade ago the county cleaned about 15 to 20 miles of open channel a year. Last year it cleaned 64 miles, and Zupke said it appears it will match that amount this year as well.

The big flows experienced last year chewed up ditch banks at a record pace too. The county needed 26,480 tons of rock riprap -- or 1,655 truckloads -- to repair the worst of it.

Farmers are adding tile to their fields for the same reason John Johnston began the practice of agricultural drainage in the United States in 1838. It boosted his yield of wheat from 12 to 60 bushels per acre, said Tom Baker, Prinsco Tile of Willmar.

Baker said Prinsco has been ramping up its production to meet overwhelming demand throughout the Midwest. It will be building a new plant north of Fargo, N.D., to serve the growing demand in the Red River Valley. It operates plants in South Dakota, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, California and Minnesota. The Minnesota manufacturing plants are located in Prinsburg and Fairfax, while Willmar serves as corporate headquarters.

Begun in 1975 by the Duininck family in Prinsburg, Prinsco became a national leader in making the switch from concrete to plastic pipe. Today, much of the plastic going into the black tile with the golden stripe comes from recycled materials. Baker said the company estimates the use of recycled material saved 4 million barrels of oil in the last 10 years.

Also discussing water issues at the ProAg forum were Warren Formo, Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition; Tom Butler, Freeborn County conservation farmer and Turtle Creek Watershed board of managers member; and Garry Bennett, hydrologist, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Hutchinson. ProAg is a Renville County-based nonprofit organization that works to support farmers while educating the public about agriculture.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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