Farm landscapes change with time - Press-Republican: Columns

Farm landscapes change with time

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Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2013 3:24 am

In recent years, there have been many reports on the loss of farm land in the United States. No one, at least in the agricultural community, likes to see productive farm land converted to subdivisions or shopping mall parking lots. 

Because many of the features of good farm land are also favorable to development, when farm property near populated areas comes up for sale, it is often unaffordable for local farmers. Near more urban areas, land values of $10,000 per acre or more make expansion by existing producers nearly impossible. Clinton County is a little bit different when it comes to farm land.

A hundred years ago, just about every nook and cranny in Clinton County was growing an agricultural crop. Have you ever gone on a hike and wondered why someone built a stone wall in the middle of the woods? At one time, our region was full of small farms growing potatoes, raising sheep, milking a few cows and making a living off the land. As people left these small farms for an easier life in the city, the farms were reclaimed by brush and later, full-grown woods.

What we have been seeing lately in Clinton County is an increase in tillable land due to land clearing. While it can be disconcerting to see hundreds of acres of trees being removed and crops being planted, rest assured that it is being done with oversight and regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as well as the County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Before a farmer can begin to clear a tract of land, the NRCS must make a determination that there are no existing wetlands or highly erodible lands that will be affected. Any activity involving land clearing, drainage systems, land leveling or filling requires an evaluation by the NRCS. Not being in compliance with conservation regulations also puts farmers at risk of being ineligible for USDA programs.

Today, with larger machinery and new technology, some of these abandoned farms are being put back into production. Often wet, growing corn or quality forage crops was very difficult for the original farmer. One of the most limiting factors in crop production in our region’s soils is poor drainage.

The soil may be easy to till and the fertility acceptable, but with too much moisture, crops like corn and alfalfa won’t grow or are very difficult to plant and harvest in wet conditions. Following clearing, one of the first things many farmers do is to install sub-surface drainage — commonly referred to as tile.

Tile drainage has time-proven and well-documented benefits including increased crop yields and forage quality, reduced sensitivity to extreme conditions and a reduction of surface-water erosion and loss of nutrients by erosion. By conveying subsurface water away, the soil surface dries out more quickly and uniformly, allowing the soil to warm up faster.

This means that field work and planting can begin sooner. Since the tiles are buried quite deep, up to five feet down, they are actually lowering the water table and allow the soil above the tiles to absorb and hold additional rainfall. This allows the soil and the plants to filter and utilize surface-applied nutrients with minimal losses.

There are concerns about nutrients leaching through the soil and into the tiles. The nutrient of most concern in Lake Champlain is phosphorus.

Phosphorus is the nutrient most blamed for summertime algae blooms. However, because most phosphorus is tightly bound to soil particles, a reduction of surface erosion and runoff in tile-drained fields has reduced surface erosion and runoff, leading to reduced phosphorus losses from those fields.

While the benefits of tile are well known, there are still many unanswered questions about the environmental impacts of tile drainage and its effects on water quality. Dr. Eric Young at the Miner Institute in Chazy is currently studying how drainage water management might prevent phosphorus and other nutrients from making their way from the field to the lake.

The NRCS is also funding an edge-of-field monitoring project in an effort to help farmers improve and verify the effectiveness of agricultural conservation practices and systems on their farm fields.

For more information about tile drainage, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Agronomy Fact sheets No. 57 and 58 go into detail about the benefits and best management practices associated with subsurface drainage. For copies, contact CCE Clinton County at 561-7450 or email

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450 or email



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