Written by: Mary Feldskov, Heartland Regional Communication Coordinator
When Huron County Soil and Crop Improvement Association (HSCIA) took over the Huronview Farm at Clinton, Ontario in 2014, they had ambitious plans to rehabilitate the 47-acre site that bore the scars of more than 100 years of intensive farming. In 2019, the group took their plans to the next level, installing an innovative tile drainage system and water quality monitoring and testing program.
The Huronview Demonstration Farm, owned by the County of Huron, has a long history in the region: in the late 1800’s, it was started as a House of Refuge for the county’s poor and disenfranchised, where its some 90-residents grew crops and raised livestock. More recently, the land had been cropped by local farmers under short-term rental contracts.
With rolling fields, low soil fertility, and water erosion and water quality issues, HSCIA members initiated several conservation farming practices including planting cover crops, planting green, and partnering with local organizations and businesses to test, monitor and evaluate their efforts.
One of the biggest improvements—and investments— that HSCIA needed to make on the farm was to install tile drainage. Given the unique nature of the demonstration farm, they saw an opportunity to install and test various types of drainage systems and their impacts on the local ecosystem and water quality.
“We knew we needed to invest in field drainage there in order to control erosion and we took this opportunity to try the most innovative system out there,” says Doug Walker, past-president of HSCIA.
The Huronview drainage demonstration project was installed in June 2019, thanks to a unique partnership including dozens of industry and government partners including the Huron County Clean Water Project, the Land Improvement Contractors of Ontario, Ducks Unlimited Canada, and Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority (ABCA), and the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.
The project features three side-by-side plots: contoured drainage with control gates; traditional tile drainage; and an untiled plot. There are also plots that compare 15-foot and 30-foot tile spacing, as well as demonstrations of surface drainage using terraces and grass waterways. The water drains into a managed wetland on the property.
The most innovative part of the project – and what has garnered the most attention – is the installation of controlled contoured drainage. The concept of controlled drainage is not new: it uses underground control gates to regulate the outflow from the tile and manage water levels in the soil. The benefits of controlled drainage include making more moisture available to crops during times of low precipitation, encouraging more water to infiltrate deeper into the ground, allowing the soil to serve as a reservoir during heavy rainfall events and reducing the amount of nutrients transported through the tile.
However, for controlled drainage to work, it needs to be installed on a flat field. The Huronview project is the first to use controlled drainage on a hilly or sloped field in Ontario. “The key to making it work on a slope is that lateral tiles need to be installed on contour at a very precise grade,” says Mel Luymes, project coordinator. “Conventional tile lines usually run straight, but these curve around the field.”
Designed by Illinois-based drainage design company AGREM, the contoured drainage plot has tile installed at a 0.1 per cent grade, curving around the lay of the land. Twenty-two control gates, which are operated manually, have been installed on each tile that can restrict or allow outflow.
Since installation, ABCA staff have been collecting water samples and monitoring the impact on water quality in the watershed. “We’re comparing what’s running across the surface, and what’s running underground in the subsurface tiles,” says Mari Veliz of ABCA. “We’re trying to determine if controlled contour drainage can be a tool to improve water quality in tile drained fields.”
To find out more about the project, including results of the water quality testing when available, please visit the Huronview website, huronview.net. Tours of the site can also be made available.