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Published February 08, 2011, 10:56 AM

Field tile in Red River Valley could solve flood, salt issues

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota state Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount, wants to help solve spring Red River flooding, save road infrastructure, improve land productivity in one fell swoop. How? Increase field tiling.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota state Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount, wants to help solve spring Red River flooding, save road infrastructure, improve land productivity in one fell swoop.

How? Increase field tiling.

A freshman in the Legislature, Luick is in the excavating business and was a pioneer in the tiling business in the southern Red River Valley. He has sponsored Senate Bill 2280, which should speed up the process of obtaining a drainage permit. It would return the authority back in the hands of local water boards. He says North Dakota currently requires those permits to go to the North Dakota Water Commission, but the process adds only clerical time and no extra oversight.

He says farmers now have to wait a month or two to get permits that should be handled “almost instantly” as they are in Minnesota and South Dakota. If approved locally, the permits still would require that there is no impact on downstream landowners. As currently proposed, the bill would have zero cost.

Luick, on the agriculture committee, defeated Arden Anderson, a one-term incumbent. He wants to use his post to let everyone to know that field tiling — if anything — is beneficial to spring flooding problems.

Because it is described as “drainage” people think it means more water in the river. Instead, it removes water from the soil profile in a slower, more deliberate fashion and moves water longer into the fall until the ground freezes. If the ground is covered by snow, and isn’t frozen as solidly, the tiled soil can act as a sponge that holds water longer into the spring. Tile systems also can be controlled, either by pump shutoffs or by gravity feed control structures. These controls also can be used to keep water in the system in dry years.

But there is more.

Luick says tiling also has a positive impact on keeping farm-to-market roads, by lowering the water table around them. A more immediate problem for farmers is “salty” soil, he says. This comes from yield-robbing soil deposits that are a result of water tables becoming too high for too long.

Solving salty soil

“You might think I’m dreaming, but I plan on being quite aggressive on this,” Luick says. “I believe the salt issues we have in the Red River Valley are getting tremendously worse. This is not something we can fix by crop rotations. The only way we are going to get the salt out of the root zones is to flush it out with water. My goal is to get every possible acre that needs tile in the valley tiled. By doing that there is going to be a huge increase in crop production, which turns into more jobs, more income for everybody.”

Luick says this isn’t only a problem for the Red River Valley. He thinks tiling should be considered farther west — anywhere where salts build up and reduce the productivity of land. He thinks it should be a solution for “side hill seep” in places the state like Dickinson, where the salt comes out of the land and sterilizes ground below it.

He says farmland productivity is extremely important in a world where there are more mouths to feed every day. He says it should be important to conservationists and environmentalists, too, that if land that currently is intensively farmed is more productive, so there is less pressure to farm more sensitive land.

As farm equipment becomes larger, farmers should be able to work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and others to mitigate “nuisance” spots not only so that critical waterfowl and other wildlife habitat is replaced, but so that farmers can farm more efficiently.

Luick knows something about that. He grew up on a farm southwest of Fairmount, N.D., where his family raised grain and beef cattle. He graduated from high school in 1976, obtained a diesel mechanic degree at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. He went back into farming with his father and older brothers.

In 1986, he started an excavating business. Since 1991, has taken classes on soils and septic system design from the University of Minnesota. In 1987, when he took a job at Wil-Rich L.L.C. in Wahpeton. In 1989, he bought a parcel land from his parents and started farming organically in 1990.

“Farming is my getaway,” Luick says. “I don’t hunt and fish. I love being out there, but I like to make money at it.”

Building businesses

In 2000, Luick started looking at field tiling and, in 2001, he started taking classes on that, again through the U of M. Field tiling has been going on in southern areas of Minnesota since the early 1900s, so is more ordinary to that state.

“In 2003, I bought my first tiling plow,” Luick recalls.

He tiled his own land that year as well as a neighbor’s. In 2004, he bought a larger, commercial-scale plow that had better depth control at higher installation speeds. He ran that for three years, and put on workshops on the topic, starting in 2004. Tile companies like HANCOR Inc. and Prinsco were involved, as well as officials from the U of M and NDSU, the NRCS in surrounding counties and states.

“The workshops were successful,” Luick says. “Usually we were talking to farmers who were wondering what this guy was guy was doing, putting plastic pipe in these fields.”

Hans Kandel, with the University of Minnesota-Crookston through 2007, took a new position with NDSU in 2008 and has been a big influence on tiling in North Dakota, Luick says.

In 2007, Luick sold his commercial plow to Field Drainage of Brooks, Minn., which is one of the three major tiling companies operating in the Red River Valley. Luick continues to do some educational work and laser surveying for the company and assists in installing lift stations and project header pipes.

Luick says he sold the plow because he was short of labor.

“The problem was getting and keeping enough guys to do the work. It’s tough work to do, and we’re short on laborers in Richland County,” he says.

Luick says he’d like to see more crews come into the region.

“It’s going to take a lot of man hours to solve this,” he says. “I would like to see more companies get involved. The creation of jobs in those companies is going to be big.”