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experience with tile drained land?  RSS feed

 
cate crawford
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Has anyone had experience with permaculture projects on tile drained land? We found a very nice piece of land we'd like to buy - 28 acres, good southern slope, near our current land, hasn't been sprayed in at least 8 years (possibly longer). South slopes +no spray is not so common around here so it feels like a very good find. That said, we have never dealt with tile drainage before. And though I could see how they could perhaps be leveraged in a permaculture design (i.e. helping feed a managed pond system), we can see real potential downsides (indiscriminately moving water off the property). Before we submit an offer we are trying to find out:

1) where are the current drains? This helps us understand if they are pervasive or localized to one area. It also helps us with any water system design we would do post purchase
2) what "problem" were the drains installed to address (the current owner did not install the system)

For #1, we are working with the soil and water conservation district to see what they have on record. for #2, the district has also pointed us in the direction of the person they think owned the land prior to the current owners. He still lives nearby, so we may just go see him.

In case the additional context helps, we hope to use the land for pigs and poultry, a food forest and vegetable production. It's a lot of space so will clearly be a multi-year project.

I did find 2 threads on permies that talked about how to take tile drainage systems out of use (for example - one can put a temporary stop on the outlet pipe and then observe the changes to the land). However, we'd clearly have to actually own the land before we stop up the system! Anyone have any wisdom and/or dealt with a similar situation? Any input could really help to inform our decision to buy/not buy.
 
Travis Johnson
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The drains will be easy to find, they are located in the sags of the field. They were installed to drain water out of the fields that either rotted crops or caused tractors to get stuck. Just looking over the fields will give you an idea of where to start. They will always "run to daylight" or in other words drain down hill so looking around after a rain storm on the downhill side near the sags in the field should uncover where they are, just by being wet.

I have a lot of drains in my fields to address the situation above. They were installed in my Grandfathers Day and still are working fine now. In fact they may be working better. They are simply a means to divert water that is in abundance and where you don't want it, to a safe place, or potentially another.

What you have to keep in mind is, water resources are important, however it depends upon location. I live in new England and in the last 20 years we are getting 5 inches of water more per year than we did. That is why I say those drains are working better than in my grandfather's day when he installed them. It is hard to say how you could incorporate them without seeing the place, but pigs require water.
 
cate crawford
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Hi Travis - thanks for this detailed response. Since I posted this, we've learned more about what may be in place on the land. Like you, we were theorizing that they might have been put in on one rather obvious swale line. however, that seems that it may not be the case. Instead it seems they were installed (also in my grandparents' day) above the current driveway/farm access road - (very sensibly) to keep the access road passable. We are closing on the property in 2 weeks and will be doing a site walkthrough with the current owners to get the precise location.

Funny you raise the issues on New England being so wet. We are definitely seeing the effects of that on our primary property. Areas that have - in our experience - been suitable for growing are now progressively getting too wet - particularly last year and this year. It's been an "interesting" ride addressing that for the couple of areas where we happened to have perennial crops started.

Conversely though - for the new plot of land (the one with the tile drainage), we understand from a farmer who has worked near the property for years. that this property can actually run on the dry side. So - for this season - we will be carefully observing that and seeing if we need to additionally put in some pond systems etc. We may indeed have the opposite issue than we do with our current land - we may need to actively retain water.

Thanks again for your help!
 
Travis Johnson
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I am really excited for you, though I am not sure how much I helped you, I was way off on where the drain tiles were.

One of the aspects I do love about permiculture is the concept of observation. It does not matter if you own a lot of land (whatever that is) or a just a quarter of an acre suburban lot, being able to observe and then orient life around it makes far, far, far more sense. Myself I have a few acres, but just like suburbanites, just what did I do...place my house parallel with the road instead of with the best southerly exposure. Just one of many, many mistakes I have made over the years.

Myself, I am a next-generational farmer so I have had two addresses in 41 years, and they are 517 feet apart. But to a greater extent that is why I am exited for you. While it is nice to walk across a farm and have your Grandfather explain things to you, at the same time I never got to know what it is like to look over a piece of property, decide if you like it or or not, what its pros and cons is, and all that. I got what I got, and no more or less. My wife, who bought a house in her previous marriage, told me how exciting it was to go to all these homes and explore them, deciding if it was for them or not. It really sounded fun. So I am excited for you.

Unfortunately I do not know much about raising some of the stuff you mentioned. I raise sheep primarily.

 
cate crawford
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I agree with your observation. It is absolutely exhilarating to shop for new land. to be honest I don't think we did a great job on selecting our first piece. Because of some previous neglect and grading, bringing it to where we need it to be has proven to be a much longer-term proposition than we originally planned. But, the upside to all that is that we do get the really rewarding feeling of seeing the land (slowly) transform. One of our big reason for buying this second piece of land is that - in order to get our business up and going more immediately - we need property that has had less abuse/requires relatively less restoration. And - from what we can tell - this new property does fit the bill. so yes - all very exciting.

I have to say though - i look at your situation and think it's just about ideal. When we decided to get a farm going we would have done just about anything to have gotten my grandfather's farm and farmhouse back. While I don't practice any longer, I come from an Amish Mennonite family and my grandfather was still very observant. Over time, he had built up a 300 acre farm with a sugar bush and very popular sawmill. When he retired, my mom didn't want to buy it (even though he begged her). Now the place is split up into parcels, the barn (that he and the community built together) is torn down and most of the field are just growing corn for industrial dairy farms in the area. It's like piece of history (not to mention some excellent craftsmanship) has been wiped out forever.

But there's always an upside, I guess. Because if we were farming his land, we'd be in 4a. Our current land ranges from 4b-5b. And that is a big difference. I guess there truly is no "perfect" situation, is there?

btw - so neat you're doing sheep. We really want to get into them too. but probably can't take that on for another couple years minimum.
 
Travis Johnson
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This farm has been slightly broken up; a few 1 acre house lots here and there that my Uncle sold off, while my brother sold off his 4 acre inheritance. I was able to wrangle my sisters inheritance back, buy the rest of the farm and then actively farm it. It has not been without a lot of hard work though to pull it all off. I got a few other pieces I would like to buy back, but property taxes is another matter. We pay the highest taxes in the country here! At some point you can only have so much. When I can get 100% land use out of our current land base then I'll think about buying more, but I have a long ways before that happens. At best I have 20% or so that is not all that it can be.

Having sheep is an interesting story. We have a long history here of having sheep. We date to the Mayflower days, and while there was no record of sheep being on the Mayflower, three years later a deed records the trading of some sheep for land. We did have the first sheep shearing shed in New England though, so that is kind of cool. But at Harvard they had 157 fireplaces to keep stoked with firewood so they had their own ship that sailed constantly between Cambridge, MA and Belfast, ME. My Uncle came up here to cut wood but never left sometime in in the late 1600's. In 1747 however My Great Grandfather several times removed was killed battling the French and Indians and so the King granted us the land we now have. Hardly loyal we switched sides during the revolution and were allowed to keep what we had. So when I say I am a 10th generation it goes back to 1746, the official date, but here in Maine it is actually a few unofficial generations before.

So from mayflower to 1982 we always had sheep, but then my father and Uncle wanted nothing to do with the farm (broilers, greenhouse, sheep, dairy, beef cows and potatoes) and just rented out the farm. In 2008 when I took over the farm I knew things would have to change if we were going to still farm, so I thought beef cows would work. My wife at the time insisted on pet sheep and insisted if we got animals we have a sheep. Well fencing for 1 sheep is the same for 100 so I started looking into sheep related stuff and realized sheep had advantages over beef. I mean if they worked well for several hundred years, obviously they would do well now. So in 2008 I started with 4 sheep and the rest is history.

I have made some mistakes a long the way that really would have reduced the steepness of my learning curve so I really try to be honest on here, not too depressing to stymie peoples dreams, but yet ease them from making mistakes like I did too.

I probably just bored you to tears, but that is my farm story and why we have sheep. They are troublesome some days, but I will never be without sheep. Just walked out to the barn an hour or so ago and there with a ewe is a little lamb...that is what it is all about.

 
cate crawford
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wow - that is truly an AMAZING story. I am only the 7th generation in this country (since the amish mennonites fled france due to religious persecution). And actually - even though we know where so many of the extended family farms are/were and still have a very tight-knit community, I have honestly no idea where my ancestors original farmstead was. your situation sounds very rare. you are truly living on a treasure.

if you don't mind me asking - how many acres do you now have? And - of that acreage - how much is currently in use for sheep?
 
Travis Johnson
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It is a tricky question because we only have 120 acres in fields, the rest is in forest, and honestly, where most of the farms income is made. SLOWLY we are trying convert to more dominance on lamb sales than from logging because lambs grow to full size in 5 months instead of 35 years like a tree. The profit per acre thus is a lot higher...but it is an every-day thing and not sit-back-and-let-the-trees-grow thing.

Now I say all this is tricky because it is not exactly what you think; in order for me to be competitive, I use the large equipment of a big dairy farm to provide winter feed for my sheep. If you start looking around at prices of equipment, you quickly see the problem in it all. Since this is New England and there is no such thing as winter grazing here, we must produce winter feed for a season of around 150 days. That is a lot of winter feed for my sheep, but with big equipment it can be slammed out in no time since they are feeding hundreds of dairy cows and have huge equipment.

That works well; however, where is the tipping point? We are actually close to it now.

As we grew in size, what was just a minor truckload of feed every week, has grown. We have cleared 20 acres of forest land back into farmland to increase our tillage acreage some, however it is just not enough, fast enough. I am hoping to clear another 8 acres this year, but it is a delicate balance trying to use the same land to keep two farms operating. Without them my free winter feed is going to start costing me some money to produce via my own equipment. Because I work off-farm that is a challenge because I cannot take off a few weeks from work every summer and run the risk of cheap, junk equipment breaking down. I can't have 30 acres of hay down either with rain coming in and end up with a broken baler! I can purchase more expensive equipment that is more reliable, however that costs more money and may make the sheep operation less profitable. So it is kind of a catch 22.

This year we will be okay with our current agreement with the big dairy farm, and that extra 8 acres in a year or two of extra tillage will certainly help.

Every year we pick one big project for the farm and last year we built a new barn. This year it was the purchase of a bulldozer. It sounds counter intuitive, but since it is for logging and stumping, it is a smart investment. Now that I have my own bulldozer again (I have had many over the years), I no longer have to sell the wood to sawmills and paper mills to pay for bulldozer rental and do it all myself instead. With it too, I can logs inaccessible areas of my woodlot that I cannot do now. This is important because my forester is coming out tomorrow to inspect my farm in becoming a Certified Tree Farm. It is a last step in a 3 year process for us so we are very excited.

In short, our farm is headed in a lot of good directions and we are happy, but we are juggling a lot of balls in the air too in order to get it all done.
 
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