My son has enjoyed digging in the dirt since he was very young.

Digging parties and drainage

By Matt Reese

My 11-year-old son really enjoys inviting some of his buddies over to dig in the dirt in the backyard. So far this spring, they have already had a couple of “digging parties.” The mud was particularly extensive on a recent digging party where they went so deep they dug right through the waterline going from the house to the barn. 

“I had to hit it with the shovel three or four times before water started shooting out,” one of my son’s friends told me, covered head to toe in dripping mud. 

Fortunately, the hardest part of fixing a leaking water line is digging the hole, and that was already done. After baling out the hole the next day, my son and I were able to get it patched up pretty quickly. All digging party participants now know how deep is too deep to dig and that they need to bring an extra change of clothes if they want to come in for dinner. 

I have told the digging party participants several times they were born a couple centuries too late in Ohio. Had my son’s group of friends been born in the mid-1800s they would have many professional hand digging career opportunities as that was the heyday of early drainage efforts in Ohio, particularly the northwest part of the state.

Vinayak Shedekar with the Ohio State University Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering recently wrote up a brief history of drainage in Ohio and I thought I’d share some of his overview on this vital part of agricultural development in the state. Here it is.

About 55% of Ohio’s agricultural soils need drainage improvement, which accounts to about 7 million out of the 12.5 million acres of cropland in Ohio. Approximately, 50% or 3.5 million of these acres have received some kind of drainage improvement, leaving the other half still in need of improved drainage. Nationally, drainage improvement is required on more than 20% of our cropland (approximately 110 million out of 421 million acres). Typically, drainage would be needed to minimize excess soil-water conditions in the plant root zone, and unfavorable field conditions for farm equipment in the spring and fall. In the early days (late 1800s to early 1900s) of drainage improvements, drainage not only helped with land conversion (i.e., bringing more land under intended uses such as cultivation), but also helped minimize the risks of pests and diseases associated with waterlogged or marsh lands. 

Although, the purpose of drainage remains largely unchanged, the science and techniques for designing and installing drainage system have evolved significantly over time. Early settlers began draining Ohio’s swamps in the 1850s. The 1859 Ditching Law, passed by the Ohio Legislature, facilitated draining of the swamp at a rapid pace, and by 1900, there were few remaining swampy areas in Northwest Ohio. Manufacture and use of fired clay drainpipes, or tiles, began sometime in the early 1800s, with the first recorded use in the United States in 1838 by John Johnston in upper New York State. The fired clay drainpipes were placed in hand-dug trenches, so the use was not extensive or common practice. In the mid-1940s, commercial installation of clay and concrete drain tiles using gas powered trenching machines was commonplace. 

During the mid- to late-1900s, the research at the Ohio State University (OSU) and the USDA-ARS Soil Drainage Research Unit in Columbus, led some of the pioneering research on drainage plows, tile trenching machines, corrugated-wall plastic tubing, and laser-beam grade-control on drainage plows. Most of these materials and technologies streamlined into the drainage industry in the decades to follow. In the past 10 to 15 years, however, the drainage design and installation has been revolutionized by the availability of computer software for drainage design, machine control, and high-precision differential (RTK) GPS technology for surveying and installation of drainage systems.

The early drainage work was heavily focused on creating drainage network of ditches to facilitate faster transport and removal of drainage waters away from the landscapes. Maintaining this 100- to 200-year-old drainage infrastructure still remains an important part of the on-going drainage work. However, most of modern-day subsurface tile drainage work is now largely focused on replacing and/or improving aged tile systems, installing new systems in soils where wetlands are not threatened, and retrofitting existing systems to enable farm­ers’ adoption of drainage related conservation practices. Check out the Overholt Drainage Education Program on June 9 for an in-depth update on drainage technology. 

I, for one, am just amazed every time I think about those incredible initial efforts of the early Ohioans to turn harsh, soggy wilderness into some of the world’s most vibrant agricultural communities through the almost unimaginably backbreaking hand labor of stalwart settlers. I know there are many who are currently critical of those efforts and the environmental impacts we are seeing today, but I know at least one group of boys who can appreciate the value of some time spent digging in the dirt.   

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