Farm Horizons, May 2000

Tiling has its pros and cons

By Andrea Vargo

Does tiling a field to drain the wet areas make sense? This is a hot topic with farmers, government agencies, and environmental agencies.

Farmers like Dean Terning of Cokato want to use all of their farmland to produce crops, and tiling the wet spots is a way to do that, he said.

"There might, possibly, even be ducks in there, and that is "basically wasteland (for a farmer)," Terning said.

Tiling helps farmers stay competitive in the world market, he said.

Although he has never figured out the number of dollars each area can produce once it is tiled, he thought that (using a very wet piece of ground as an example) it might be around $50 per acre more than if it were not tiled.

A wet spot could produce 20 to 30 bushels of corn per acre more, if it is tiled, Terning said.

The tax base doesn't change on his land, whether it is tiled or not, so why not produce something on it, he added.

The average farmer is trying to produce himself into prosperity, and Terning said it is a catch-22.

As far as alternative uses of the wetlands are concerned, Terning said he has yet to see anyone standing at his door, checkbook in hand, to pay him to use his wetlands.

A lot of the government programs look good only on the surface, he said.

Terning said he will put in 10,000 to 20,000 feet of tile this year.

Deron Ruesch of the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District and district conservationist for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) gave a little background on tiling.

Farmers could tile what they wanted before 1985. That was the year the USDA came out with the National Food Security Act.

It said that any producer receiving federal benefits has to follow several provisions.

Highly erodible land and wetlands became an issue for producers in farm programs, he said.


Now, anytime a farmer does something regarding tiling, the NRCS must review the property and determine if the area being tiled is a wetland, Ruesch said.

Official word is if it is a wetland and a new tiling job, the answer is "no," he said.

If it is an existing tile system, the farmer is allowed to maintain it to the exact original specifications.

"Unfortunately, a lot of farmers don't even tell us they are tiling. If we find out a converted wetland exists, it is usually because someone has called us," Ruesch added.

Farmers are doing the tiling on their own, and there are consequences, if they get caught.

All the federal benefits received by the farmer since the tiling was done must be paid back to the government and the farmer is taken off the federal farm program, he explained.

The only way to get back on the farm program list is to plug the ditch, rip out the tile, or restore another area to wetland.

Environmental impacts

First of all, losing wetlands means losing wildlife habitat, Ruesch said.

In addition, certain wetlands act as a ground water recharge area, and in dry years they act to replenish the ground water.

Rainy years find wetlands acting as a sort of dam, holding back lots of heavy rains.

Tile is a direct route that funnels manure and chemicals that attach to soils into the nearest county tile and then into the Mississippi River.

Fence posts that are placed in the middle of fields generally point out the location of field tile. This affects everyone downstream, he said.

One field in Wright County has 12 tile intakes, Ruesch said.

Some tiling is beneficial and some is not. It is a very complicated process, he stated.

SWCD is a free service to help farmers manage their property, he said.

Compliance with the regulations is the job of the NRCS, and Ruesch said, "If both urban and rural landowners did a better job (of taking care of their land and the environment), I would be out of a job."

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