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Christmas drainage pipe dreams come true

Subsurface tile drainage installation typically continues through Thanksgiving, but this year is going on toward Christmas due to warm, snow-free conditions in the Red River Valley. Field Drainage Inc. installs a project near Wahpeton, N.D., where Agweek reported on flooding in July 2016.

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On Dec. 4, 2020, a Field Drainage, Inc., crew installs drainage tile inheavy farmland soil that is prone to flooding on the Mumm Farms land about five miles west of Wahpeton, N.D. Photo taken Dec. 4, 2020, near Wahpeton, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

WAHPETON, N.D. — Dustin Mumm on Dec. 4, 2020, watched a drain tile crew install subsurface drainage on a 400-acre field. He was as ecstatic as kid watching presents piling up under the tree.

“I just told my wife this morning, this is kind of like Santa Claus coming at Christmas, and I get to open them. I’m really happy and excited about having this project going,” he said.

In July 2016, Agweek covered a devastating rain at the Mumm farm on the same parcel.

“We were standing with about 5 inches of water — under water, and water standing everywhere,” Mumm said. The yields were in the low 100- to 120-bushel per acre range, instead of nearing the 200 bushels per acre.

Mumm, 47, had talked with Jess Determan of Field Drainage Inc., based in Brooks, Minn., about a possible drainage plan for the parcel. Recently, he phoned Determan about finally getting at it next year, but had a Christmas surprise: Determan had been scheduled to do a job in the Wheaton, Minn., area, but a holdup in getting the drainage permits delayed it. Mumm’s area was about the same size — 400 acres and 40-foot-wide spacing.

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Land values

The Mumms have been struggling with wet fields for years.

”Mother Nature hasn’t treated us the greatest in the past 20 years, hasn’t treated us the greatest, providing even rains consistently through the summer,” Mumm said. “We usually get a 4- to 5-inch rain at a time, and this heavy ground is so fine (particles) that the water can’t go through the soil very easily.”

Farmland in this region sells for roughly $3,500 to $4,500 per acre. Tile drainage projects run roughly $700 to $1,000 an acre, depending on spacing and pump requirements. The land selling price would likely make up for the tile price.

Productive value is more important than the selling price, he said.

“Being able to farm it, getting your crops returned with good prices and decent yields, and the dollar value if you’re going to rent it out someday. People know: If it’s tiled, it’s worth more money,” he said.

Field Drainage Inc. is a family operation, started by Determan’s parents, Del and Cindy, in 1978. Today, Jess does designing, sales, permits and billing for the company. The company runs three crews at a time but has equipment for four, largely operating in the Red River Valley from Wheaton, Minn., to the Canadian border.

After the vexing year of 2019, the company in 2020 will end up doing 50% more than what they expected to do — installing about 8 million feet of tile — more than double the pace of last year. And they’re not done yet.

'Like clockwork' rains hamper crop
2nd year of wet harvest takes tiling plans off back burner for grower

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Seasons past

Usually, tiling installation seasons start at “frost-out” in the spring and go until the crop is planted. Work slows down until the start of harvest.

“We go until freeze-up, which is normally around Thanksgiving,” Jess said. They typically stop when the frost is eight inches deep, although that is affected by the soil type. Usually, the final week comes when outside temperatures go below zero for a couple of nights. Rain in October and November makes the frost really hard.

“We start breaking equipment at 8 inches of frost,” he said.

The dry fall conditions and a low water table this year allowed an extended season.

“We count on getting to Thanksgiving, and usually we can get a week after Thanksgiving,” Jess said. “We’ve had one year about eight years (ago) where we got close to Christmas with one crew. Two crews got shut down closer to Dec. 1."

This year, all of the crews were planning to keep going through Christmas.

“It’s much needed,” he said.

“We’ve had two years in a row where we’ve shut down early and had tough, tough conditions, where it was too wet to install, and then it froze hard. To have a year like this means an awful lot to us, and I know it means a lot to the farmers who haven’t been able to get things done as well.”

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Worst to best

This year has been a far cry from 2019, when Field Drainage was able to accomplish only two-thirds of what they’d expected to do.

First, the cold spring delayed tiling until late. Second, tiling halted when farmers suddenly were able to plant. “They were planting on top of the frost,” Jess recalled.

Third, because of delayed planting, crops didn’t mature, so tiling crews had to wait until fields were harvested. And then?

“October hit and it just wouldn’t stop raining. We were getting 5-inch rains all over. All of our job sites were flooded at one point. And when we finally got through that tough, wet October, it got cold. And finally, there were two blizzards in October last year, along with cold that turned the ground stone-hard.

“I ended up breaking promises,” Jess acknowledged, pausing momentarily at the bitter memory of it. “I would tell a farmer, ‘Yeah, we’ll be able to get it done. I promise, we’ll get this one done.' And — just couldn’t get it done.”

Fortunately, farmers understand weather, he said. “The corn was still standing last year at Christmastime,” he said.

Dustin Mumm said he can’t wait for his father, Dale, 81, and mother, Bonnie, to see the tiled project.

“When my dad started the farm here in 1964, tiling was a pipe dream,” he said.

Dale, who moved to town and suffered from COVID-19 and pneumonia, is feeling better and will also try to come out to see the progress.

“All of our Red River Valley ground is good ground, and it can produce a decent crop, if you can have consistent water usage and not the big floods,” Dustin said.

Like a kid at Christmas, he’s both excited and nervous.

“I’m nervous because of the weather, and we are in December,” he said. “With this heavy ground, you’ve got to get it worked and prepped decently for spring. I’m hoping the weather stays a little longer.”

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Subsurface field drainage systems require planning and engineering that has improved with technology. Photo taken Dec. 4, 2020, near Wahpeton, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

121420.AG.DecemberTileDrain03.jpg
Subsurface field drainage systems require planning and engineering that has improved with technology. Photo taken Dec. 4, 2020, near Wahpeton, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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