Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
Jared Nordick, 38, rented his first 65 acres from a neighbor when he was 15 years old. Right from the get-go, he practiced land stewardship side by side with his father Gerald, who learned how to care for the land from his dad.
The father-son team planted trees for a shelter belt to reduce wind erosion and tended to buffers and grass waterways. Nordick was among the first farmers certified by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Water Quality Certification Program.
So, it’s not surprising that the Nordicks jumped at the opportunity to use a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to install patterned tile drainage with water level controls. Thirsty crops in late July — when rain can be scarce and fields dry — can send roots down to find that water held on the land below the surface using the innovative drainage system.
The project takes a field of approximately 150 acres and divides it in three parts in order to compare the new method with another section where a tile drainage system has no water retention structures. A third section has no drainage at all.
Nordick points out that, contrary to what some critics charge, it is the undrained land that poses the most serious water quality challenge. When spring rains saturate undrained fields, the water has no choice but to flow over the surface and carry away soil and nutrients, he says. A good tile system allows the land to act like a sponge and hold more water, letting out slowly through the drain. The control structures add yet another means to hold on to water and make use of it on the farm, particularly when the summer months turn dry and crops need extra moisture.
In another field, the Nordicks also engineered at saturated buffer — a tile drain flows through the soil of a berm planted with native grasses whose roots take up the moisture and capture nutrients like nitrogen fertilizer before that water can flow into nearby waterways.
A field demonstration day on June 23 showcased these innovative approaches to water quality on the farm. The event drew elected officials from throughout the region as well as area farmers, to get them interested in controlled tile drainage. Minnesota Corn Growers Association supported the field day with a grant through its new Conservation Innovation Grant Program.
“There are four sub-mains to the irrigation system, so we can create these blocks where we keep the water at different levels,” Nordick said. “We thought if we can hold onto an acre-inch of water (27,000 gallons per acre) or maybe three acre-inches, we might be improving our yield, anywhere from zero to 200 bushels an acre. No one knows so we’re here to find out how those different levels improve yield, or hurt it. And maybe in the process we are keeping nutrients out of the waterways, and holding back water that would otherwise contribute to flooding.”
This last item drew the interest of Rep. Collin Peterson, who toured the farm recently and brought two House colleagues along to see firsthand what progressive crop farmers are doing in and effort to reduce the threat of flood in the Red River Valley.
Water quality is not a new concern for Nordick. Jared joined the Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District as an elected representative a few years ago, and quickly climbed the ranks, now serving as chairman of the local agency that works with farmers on nutrient and input management, to assure water quality.