Advocacy & Water Management Practices
- Charlie Schafer of Agri Drain
Guest Charlie Schafer started Agri Drain with two brothers in 1976. In this episode, we get his perspective on our changing industry and opportunities to positively impact water quality through controlled drainage and conservation practices.
Episode 13 | 50:32 min
I began my career in the agricultural drainage industry in 1976, when my two brothers and I founded Agri Drain Corp. and began installing drainage tubing for Iowa farmers. Soon after, we started manufacturing products for our own projects and to sell to other contractors. In 1984, construction activities were discontinued in order to focus full-time on product development, manufacturing, and distribution. Over the past 39 years, I have held various offices as a contractor and associate member of the Land Improvement Contractors of America (LICA) and currently serve as vice chair for the National LICA Association Board.
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Matt Helmers 0:12
Water Management is just going to become even more critical into the future.
How misunderstood what we do is.
I would encourage people to open their minds and listen to this dialogue.
Welcome to the water table podcast. This Jamie Duininck with you again. Got a great podcast for you today. Today, Kent Roedelius is back with me. Kent has been serving in various positions on the agricultural drainage management coalition, he can talk about that. But with us, with Kent tonight today as Charlie Shaffer. Charlie as well, no one in our industry. Owner, Agri drain, and I would like to turn it over to Kent. Kent, have you kind of talk a little bit about Charlie, and then let Charlie introduce himself.
Thanks, Jamie. Great to have you on board today, Charlie, we’re looking forward to a great conversation. Charlie and I have known each other for a long time been kicking around this industry, the water table management industry. I don’t know anyone who is more energetic or passionate about water and water quality than Charlie is. And today, I think you’ll get a taste of that. Charlie’s been right on the forefront of much of the research that’s being done on water quality. He leads the charge, he’s well connected. He’s in Washington, he’s all over checking out projects, and seeing what the latest and greatest and the newest technology is available to help us with some of the challenges that we run across with water table management and drainage water. So that’s just a brief indication of who Charlie is. And we’ll get rolling today and start talking about what we really think are key aspects of where the industry is going. So Charlie, why don’t you give us a little introduction to yourself, tell us who you are, personally, and how you got started. And what’s your what’s your background in history in this industry is
Charlie Schafer 2:14
well, thanks, Ken, thanks for that nice introduction. And Janie appreciate the opportunity to be involved today. Should be fun, I’ve listed some of your stuff and you guys are spot on. I think it’s great to bringing this information to not just the industry but beyond, I think it’s critically important that we tell our story. I’m really a lucky guy to have been one of six boys growing up on a very small 160 acre farm in central Iowa, and went to a junior college with the intent of being a pork production, I was going to be a hog farmer. And I really loved the row crop aspect of working out there. And it was a small farm, you know, you do a little bit of everything. And my brother had purchased a tiling machine, a little Vermeer, pt 12 with a 350 International as a power source. And he said, hey, why don’t you help me out a little bit here, you know, and so we jumped in and started doing that 45 years ago. And so oddly enough, I kind of fell in love with the whole industry and fascinated by the improvements that were possible. And so we grew that business and did subsurface ag drainage, tile terrace work, we did some highway work with longitudinal sub drains, underground, septic the whole bit, you know, and it was a lot of fun. But the whole drainage component was something that I began to learn more and more about. And then we started to develop and build our own products for use on our projects, and began to sell those as well. And so after eight years in the construction business, learning a lot about being a contractor and working with producers, and try to make a difference in ag drainage and in agriculture and also understanding how you have to manage a business in order to stay in business. And so it was a great opportunity for me to learn about it, we got to go to a lot of farms over and over, because they’d have us come in one year and do a certain amount of work. And then the next year we come back and look at the intakes we installed, we look at the fields that we had drained and saw that the improvements that were made. So we have to learn kind of piece by piece and year after year about how we could not only make a difference on working ag land, but also how we can modify products that were used in the application of those practices. So that was a lot of fun for us and in a great education for me would have been fun to go to to a four year school or even going into engineering and things but but for us this was the kind of the backyard engineering approach and it certainly has been wonderful opportunity that to be involved in the industry to provide products and services to other folks. And and of course, beyond just water quantity related issues now for agriculture, water quality has become such a large part of what we do and think about every day. So that’s been a tremendous amount of fun for me, Kent, you’re very kind to talk about being involved in the industry and traveling and doing this and that, but as you all know, and I’m sure your listeners, listeners know, unless you’ve got a really good team at home, and people who truly care about what they do, and how they do it, in terms of product quality, and customer service, in taking care of the day to day issues in regard to HR, and making sure everybody is treated fairly and has an opportunity to stay in that business and make a living, you just can’t go, your business will suffer. But for us, it’s been great it’s wonderful to be associated with really good people, within our company and outside the company in the industry.
Yeah, good story, Charlie, you’re a little humble on on some of the things you’ve done, you know, in your contracting business. And then, as you built Agri dream Corp and what that has meant for you, I know you’re passionate about it, and for our industry. And I think you’re, you know, the thing that can’t kind of set it but you know, what drives what drives Agri drain and Charlie Schafer is passion and I’ve said more than once, I can’t believe a guy that’s been doing this for over 40 years can still get excited about a ratguard, but you are the guy that can and it tells you who you are, as far as you’re excited about your customers and the products that you sell and manufacture. So it’s pretty neat.
Charlie Schafer 6:42
Well very nice of you not just say a guy that’s that old.
Ah you know, almost slipped. You’re welcome.
Well, Charlie, like I said earlier, we’re going to try and hone in on some of these water quality issues that we’re working on in with ag water. There’s certainly a lot of challenges and this water quality is so large, it’s hard to just narrow down and start to talk about what we’re really focusing on. I think it’s really important today that we try to focus in and talk to people about some of the main issues that we’re looking at, and working on with some of the organizations that we both belong to and support strongly. So water quality, Charlie, how would you sum up and see what we’re what we’re focusing on? And what the what the goal of, of a lot of what we’re doing is today?
Charlie Schafer 7:38
Well, I think you were probably at the very first meeting of the ag drainage management systems task force back in, I believe, was ’02 at the National Lab for Ag in the environment at Ames, Iowa. They actually call it the soil health lab at that time. And that was all about the pressure that was exerted on the Mississippi River basin in terms of nutrient transport. And EPA and others had focused in on subsurface drainage as being a significant component to the delivery system of those nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus primarily, it was about nitrogen. And so we as industry guys, remember Leonard Binstock, was invited, he invited a group of us to attend. And, you know, we looked at it as an opportunity because here we are, where we know we need drainage is significant. It’s important necessary. But we also know we don’t need as much of it as the 24 seven gravity flow system delivers. So we said okay, there’s a focus here. Let’s not stick our head in the sand let’s address it, let’s deal with it. Let’s take a look at what we can do. So the land grant university and extension, USDA, EPA, all those research folks had come up with what was pretty simple, Golden Rule of drainage. I remember Dr. Wade Skaggs talking about it say, hey only drain as much water for these landscapes as is necessary for Ag production and not to drop more look at traffic ability look as well compaction, look at root penetration and soil profile and compassion look at all the warming aspect of earlier planting the benefits of that. And so, you know, as industry guys, we’re we’re kind of widget based solutions people and if we can build it and install it, it’s gonna make a difference. That’s what we want to do. And so really, the whole water quality emphasis has led us to a point where we recognize that we can not only make a difference in the water quality side by managing these systems different design them and install them differently. But but a systematic drainage system that delivers water to edge of field practices and also utilizes infield practices like drainage water management, saturated buffers and bio reactors. It’s really a cleaner system and a healthier system for the environment than an undrained field. Certainly, we look at what Iowa had for years before that would probably the late 1800s. When they started to drain the Desmoine load, it was a mess man kosuth County was twice the size of any other county, because nobody would take the rest. You can take a boat all the way up into Minnesota. Not that you would. Just kidding you Minnesota guys, we like to make jokes. But yeah, the water quality discussion has really provided us with opportunity to be the good guys to come in here and say, Look, we know drainage, but is a source of concern for a lot of people. And there can be unintended consequences. But if we do the right thing, not only can we reduce the negative impact, we can increase yield, we can reduce risk, we can bring those systems full circle and do sub irrigation, reverse a drainage process, and really scale up production. So there’s there’s huge opportunities there.
So Charlie, you mentioned the agricultural drainage management Task Force and kind of leads into and I mentioned earlier, the ADMC agricultural drainage management coalition, but there are some of our listeners, that we probably need to back up and identify what is the DMC and tell us a little bit about what it is and the history, as you were, you know, very involved in that from the very beginning,
Charlie Schafer 11:24
though, fair enough. That’s that’s a good point, Jamie, that not everybody would be familiar with that organization. We as industry people, were allowed to attend the first taskforce meeting in subsequent meetings. But we were not allowed to be members only participants. And so there were things that we could do and couldn’t do. And likewise, those members of the task force were restricted from reaching out to congressional folks talk about additional funding. So their hands were tied to a degree. So it was a great partnership. Our industry people got together and Kent was one in Prinsco themselves very early on or initial charter members. And so we put together a group of people that could actually go to DC and talk about funding and talk about and educate some of those Congressman get some some letters of support to secretaries of agriculture. Look specifically at ag programs, we got involved in conservation innovation grants for demonstration projects. And so those had partnered with people like the corn growers proved to be really helpful in terms of telling the story and demonstrating on infield scale, not just plot scale, like much of the researchers would typically do.
Yeah, and I mentioned that just because t’s interesting how far ADMC has come and I just want our listeners to know that, you know, without the passion and push of people like Charlie and Kent, we wouldn’t be where we are today. You know, there are others I was on some of those trips, Roger Ellingson, Steve Baker from Springfield plastics, there’s some guys that that saw the importance of this and with Charlie’s push and passion, continued to grow the organization and have some, you know, we’re gonna continue to talk about but some of the things that have been done with drainage water management and practices, but through the push and ADMC as part of the catalysts of that, so thank you for your hard work and initiative in that Charlie, and Kent, both of you.
Charlie Schafer 13:33
It’s very nice for you to say that. And with Kent serving as president, we’ve done some great things here. The taskforce has actually changed form now that F-pack is has restructured the department agriculture. And so they’re now the conservation drainage network and as such ADMC is allowed to play a role and actually be a member of this organization. So our executive director, Keegan Kult, is on their organizing committee and has done just a great job of working with us. We just finished off a two and a half day annual meeting with them. And it was really great, well attended, I think there were over 46-47 presentations, everything from water quality to hydrology, looking at nutrient transport. And so they’re kind of on the leading edge and that we had our our business meeting this morning and looked at how we can organize committees to be more effective as we communicate the findings of these and continue to focus on research that’s important. We had the opportunity to present a panel discussion for the keynote started off Wednesday morning, not even at session. And so we had Keegan Kult actually moderated that session. And we had myself, Tom Kristensen, Alec Echols, Dave White, and then Isaac Fairy joined us in that presentation, you may be familiar with Isaac and Ken Fairy who are crop tech consultants in Illinois. And he’s a agronomist for successful farming functional successful farming one of the other, sorry about that. But they had some results for about a 15 year drainage study and about an eight year drainage water management study and presented information that they believe is research grade. And it shows significant yield benefit, they showed an average of 12 bushels of corn increase in six bushels of bean increased per acre, on their plots where they utilize drainage water management. Now, this is not some irrigation drainage water management alone, which was great to see with manual adjustment on these controls, not even automatic control. But something that was maybe even more interesting to see was the timing and rate of nutrient discharge associated with rainfall events. These things are peeking out in 24 hours, and in over two days, they’re done. So that shows us that with with active aggressive automatic management of these systems, we can do an even better job or reduced neutral transport and saving water and nutrients for the benefit of the crop during dry season. So that was really exciting stuff. And they did some ROI to show that drainage and drainage water management can get maybe a 50% better ROI just by adding drainage water management to subsurface drainage systems, at least that was their experience. So that’s kind of a big deal. And we think that’s what we really need to focus on in the future to give producers a real reason to engage in these practices.
Yeah, that’s, that’s exciting. I had not heard that. And it’s exciting, especially when it comes from highly credible people like that. And one of the things that’s fun for me on this water table podcast is connecting people in our industry and you know, some of the titans of our industry that you know, maybe I haven’t personally connected with in a long, long time. And you know, when you said Ken Ferry, for me, that’s a name from from the past. And so it’s fun to see that people have that experience level and knowledge can connect back to helping others understand what we do through the water table podcast. So that’s kind of cool.
It really is an interesting story. And I think that initial project done by the Fairies was in 2012. And so that was with even what today would be old technology. And their report to the to the group was was pretty incredible. I think one thing that I would just remind our listeners of, if you’re wondering what we’re talking about, and what doesn’t really make sense, I’d encourage you go back to our website or go to YouTube and watch drainage101, by Prinsco. Give you a really good idea of what’s going on underground and well how water moves, and how we can manage water in the soil profile. And that’s the real challenge for us with water quality is nutrient loss through drainage water. Charlie, we talked a little bit about some of the big grants that we had conservation innovation grants early on with the ADMC. Could you recap a couple of those for us and just give us some highlights of why that was important.
Charlie Schafer 18:17
Yeah, Kent, happy to. And that’s really how we established our position with USDA in terms of ADMC. We apply for and receive the largest conservation innovation grant from NRCS. It was $972,000 bucks. The National Corn Growers came to us and said, hey, we’d like to do a drainage water management demonstration and we’d like to do you know, maybe parent fields and and we said, That’s great Max Star. It was a guy who was running stewardship forum. And we said, that’s great. What about if we do a bigger one? What if we try to do multiple sites and multiple states? He said, that’s fine, too. But we have no money. I said, Well, we don’t either. So we made application received this money, it was matching grants. So we had to come up with right at a million dollars as well and in-kind of cash support to get the job done. But it was a three year with a one year no cost extension in five states, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio to do four sites per state paired 20 to 40 acre fields. And so we had 40 fields under management there. Basically, we found what we expected to find in terms of nutrient reduction. We never really took it out to the point where we analyzed or or managed for yield. And so we didn’t generate a lot of information there because a lot of the students with language universities, who partner with us out of the conservation trading network or the task force at that time, took the summers off, so we didn’t have anybody in the field to help manage. We didn’t really have management recommendations. So that part of the story was lost, but it certainly provided information for those funding organizations and agencies, to to pay attention to the fact that this practice was beneficial for nutrient reduction. The second one we did was in conjunction with NRCS, and the Farm Service Agency to do saturated buffer demonstrations in four states. And then a scale up, Laura Christensen with University of Illinois did a scale up to look at what the potential benefit was throughout the upper Mississippi River Basin. And so that came out really great to Good, good reductions on a per dollar basis. So efficiency was very high there. But yet didn’t really create any yield benefit unless we had really flat lands that we could backwater up into the soil. So our goal is ADMC guys, is to find win wins in both categories, not only reduce nutrient transport and environmental issues associated with drainage, and then affect kind of defend our industry and freedom to farm, but also make producers more money, make more water and nutrients available to them.
And you mentioned saturated buffers in there. And in that, in that description, Charlie and talk a little bit more about edge of field practices and, you know, we hear drainage water management, what is what does that really all mean?
Charlie Schafer 21:21
You know, drainage water management is a conservation practice standard from NRCS. Practice 554. That speaks directly to the ability to manage water levels and flow rates coming out of a farm field with use of devices like water level control structures. But a lot of people take the term drainage water management more as a general term to think well, we should be managing ag drainage water, right? Well, sure we should. Everything else is managed in our lives pretty much. So they look at not only the infield practice management of drainage water management, but also an edge of field so think about a subsurface drainage system that on an average annual basis removes about maybe nine inches, nine acre inches of water per year, maybe 25% of what that field receives in rainfall or precipitation. And so if any water management can reduce up to 50% of that in that range as a ballpark just by managing water levels, flow rates during the growing season, but primarily during the fall season, I almost reducing all trainees during the fall season. So you’ve got a 50% reduction there of nutrients and water leaving the field. Make sense, then if you can route that water through edge of field practices like saturated buffers and bio reactors and further reduce those nutrients by, let’s say, around 50%, if not 75% off the top. And so when you when you couple up companion practices in a systems approach, you really build some synergy and you get spectacular results. You know, there’s other things that can be done as well like routing that water through wetlands or ponds for treatment. The big push now is capture and reuse let’s think about how we can receive some of these drainage waters hold them for either later reuse and or strategically shedding those waters. So we have room for more rainfall to flow into these these capture basins, to reduce peak flow and flood mitigation, we think that will be a large opportunity for producers to actually store rainwater on their land for a period of time in order to reduce downstream flooding, and be compensated for it on a per acre basis or an acre foot basis.
Good description there. Talking more you know about drainage Water Management Edge of field practices, I mean, you mentioned saturated buffers, you mentioned bio reactors. Are those are those the most promising that you’re seeing right now from the standpoint of practices?
Charlie Schafer 24:00
Well, I think for edge of field, when you catch things at the outlet, they seem to be quite effective. One problem that people recognize with bio reactors is their effectiveness diminishes over time because a carbon source is basically used up and so it has to be excavated and re you know, re installed basically. And so the cost per pound can go up and be higher than what we’d like to see the whereas the saturated buffers when you have a distribution line to route water from the drainage system into an edge of field stream back buffer that’s vegetated, you actually so far it appears you improve performance you increase carbon sequestration because you’ve got good vegetative growth there you’re in effect sub irrigating those plants that are in that buffer, so we see that as being a really low cost option, easy to install very little engineering. You don’t need to bring a lot of woodchips in or anything like that, you just knock it out. And that is something that’s very simple to do. I don’t have a preference, I just look at the cost per pound, especially as we start to think about environmental markets emerging and maturing here. If If producers can truly eventually be paid for a pound of nitrogen, in some cases they are and certainly for greenhouse gas reduction, and carbon sequestration. You think about what’s going to make the farmer more money for a smaller investment? What’s going to incentivize these people to put these practices on the ground? That can be one.
Yeah, that’s, that’s interesting. Let’s, you know, there’s a lot of questions there. I still have. But let’s move a little bit into that, you know, some of the buzzwords you’re hearing now, Soil Health Cover crops. You know, carbon trading, you mentioned just a little bit about that. Where do you see all of that going? And how that intersects with our industry, you know, of managing water on the subsurface?
Charlie Schafer 26:03
Well, I think it’s a you’re right, it’s a hot topic, there’s lots of interest in it with all the discussion of climate change, and who’s responsible, why it’s here, how do we combat it? But I think it’s an opportunity for us, as long as we’re proactive, as long as we don’t stick your head in the sand and say, well, we’re not responsible for this. It’s not our problem. I don’t know what causes climate change, you know, and I don’t think I can change the weather. But I certainly understand how to change the way working land and farm fields respond to conditions that are too wet or too dry. So that’s an opportunity to if there’s funding available to do that, then I say we take advantage of it and we improve our soil health, we apply the cover crops, all the reduced tillage to help that soil structure evolve and get better and better. One thing that’s interesting that that Isaac Fairey pointed out as well, he said, you know, we’re watching these cover crops, we’re looking at soil structure and soil health, and we’re watching the way this water moves in terms of flashiness needs fields. So what we realize now is that the better the soil health is, the faster the water moves through through preferential flow, and the more nutrients that could actually take with us if we don’t safeguard ourselves with some type of management structures in place. I’ve got a farmer buddy who grows continuous corn and reduced or no till. And he says, man, he said, If I don’t put structures in my system, that’s intensively drained, he said that water leaves that field so fast, it never has a chance to be soaked into the soil profile, and to be a benefit from my crops. It’s just, it’s gone. And that’s an interesting concept. You talk about unintended consequences. There’s one for you.
Yep, for sure. Interesting. And I think that’s at a place, Kent and I have talked about it a lot, where, you know, we’re really in our industry, in the infancy of just learning about that, how does cover crops and what we do intersect and what are things that we can do to help benefit a farmer that wants to install cover crops,
It’s really been interesting to watch the evolution of all these practices being developed in water quality. We just came from the two day meeting with researchers, and industry, people and regulators, and it’s there is in the upper Midwest, we’ve talked about this before, there’s about 30 million acres that are suitable for some type of drainage water management. We’ve only touched about 1% of those acres. And we’re starting to build this huge toolbox of things that can really be used by a farmer. We had everybody at the table, we were all talking but yet it’s really a head scratcher. Why we’re not starting seeing more adaptation of these practices. It takes the right guy right now that’s interested in as most farmers are in conservation. But, Charlie, how do we bridge that gap between what’s available? What can practically be done? What the funding is, you know, we’re starting to see a lot of the conservation groups joining us locking arms and saying, you guys have some really significant answers to some of these problems. How can we work with you? And I think we’re pushing this thing up the hill and gaining some momentum. But, how would you respond to some of that, Charlie?
Charlie Schafer 29:28
Well, I think that’s a great question. That’s probably the $64,000 question. What we believe is that we’re on the verge of really some cultural change here. And not to get too deep into it, but but we’ve been drained in foreign fields for a long time and water has been viewed as something that could reduce yield and so this 24/7 gravity flow mentalities pretty well baked in, and I get it. And for people to change the way they do things it takes positive outcomes. They need to know it and see it and have their buddies do it. And they get rewarded for changing these behaviors. And so the prospect of increased yield is one that they can just believe intuitively accept because they said, well, sure, if during relatively dry times, I have more water nutrients available by crop, I’m gonna grow more corn or beans. And so that’s great. So at least we get their attention there, right. And now when we have some, some research documentation and data from guys like, like Ken and Isaac Ferry, that’s a great thing, because we can take that to them and it’s not us saying it’s them and then provide some automation on top of it. That’s even better. But, but for us, automation and management goes beyond opening and closing vowels, we can do that automatically, remotely, locally, programmable, remotely programmable, you name it, whatever. We’ve got underground bows, that’s all cool. But we as an industry haven’t really, I think, gone to the producer and say, here’s how you do it. Here’s why you do it, we can make it easy for you, we can make it profitable for you. All you have to really do is say yep, I’m in. And then even provide financial assistance for them through NRCS USDA. So we’re developing a tool called DWMRX. And what this is a prescriptive approach to water management. And the easy part will be make recommendations, site specific recommendations, for producers on individual farm fields, we’ll look at slopes, soil types, drainage coefficient, geographic location, we want to plug in their intended crop their planting date. So we understand maturity, we can couple up sensors like soil moisture, sensors, and even real time nitrogen if they’re involved in environmental markets. But this will give them a prescription to say, here’s where your water should be in terms of soil moisture content, at this time of the year in the development phase of your crop. And we know during the fall season, let’s hold back as much as we can let’s store the water, store the nutrients, that’s all a good thing. But beyond that, then we say okay, now we know what environmental conditions we want in the field. How do we get there? Because think about subsurface hydrology, and think about how water moves through that soil profile laterally from rainfall event, or from groundwater coming up, now we have to be a lot more proactive about how do we manage that valve? How do we open and closed we do variable rate trainings to open a quarter inch or half inch, three quarters of an inch? Or do we open and reduce our current system that we utilize for a multi level system allows us to establish ideal set points for water levels within the field during individual periods for the crop benefit, and water quality. But then we also allow that water to go above that set point for a while, because we know that it will. And we know that it’ll settle back down like old Jim Thows used to say just let it soak for a while, ARS researcher, great guy, you know, did a lot with norm fallacy, all these these wonderful research pioneers who did so much for the industry. But if we can, if we can manage the water levels of flow rates and understand when to open and how long to open for and how far to let that water go above that setpoint, then is when we can really take the top off of those those rainfall events and reduce nutrient transport and save that water for the crop itself. So that’s we’re in the process of building an operating system that we cite specific, prescriptive approach that we think will go a long ways towards helping producers really get bang for their buck and reduce risk. Then, to go on to the next step. Add sub irrigation, why not reverse the drainage process? Imagine a farmer who could could turn a dial in a switch, run it off his phone, he’s got variable rate or variable frequency drive on his pumps, he delivers water in each individual section of his field, when it needs it the right amount he can drain he can hold he can add, then you’ve got a great system. And not only can you reduce risk and get a great deal he can increase plant population and fertilizer rates because he’s got the confidence he’s going to have the water available to support it and the drainage and types of access.
A lot said there and well said from the standpoint of that’s the future, and that’s where we need to get to and obviously there’s a lot that has to happen every day to get there. Maybe as part of that after that answer is, you know, part of what’s changed here in the last six months is is our administration. And you know, and their their outlook and what they’re going to be pushing for from the standpoint of environment and water quality. And, you know, how do you see that Charlie in the circles you run in and talk to and now do we get NRCS and other regulars on board to make things less cumbersome for producers?
Charlie Schafer 35:08
Well, I think there’s a variety of things we can do and I think programmatic changes take time and they can be really painful. We are working now with the state of Minnesota, for instance, to try to modify technical assistance contract to be a turnkey contract, it would make equip look a lot more like a DOT contract, whereas they pay for units. For instance, cubic yards of material in a bioreactor lineal feet of distribution line in a saturated buffer, or a drainage water management on a per unit basis or per acre basis. And then they come in with more or less pre approved practices to address a specific resource concern. And allow you to come in prior to any previous approval, and almost a blanket approval to come in and begin to design and implement those systems bring a contractor in a bill that it’d be much more turnkey, much less painful for the producer, much more efficient for USDA, if we can get to that point, then we will, I believe, see a great opportunity to scale up and really make those programs run a lot, a lot better for the producer and better for our industry, when it comes to putting those practices in place. And certainly a lot faster. You know, people seem to be willing to wait for approval in the signup process and the ranking and all this for a ponder, you know, maybe a waterway. But drainage is a little different drain is kind of a real time deal. If we don’t put it in place, we know we lose money. So that’s the direction we think things are going and we certainly hope they do. They do wonderful.
One of the things that we’re going to keep dealing with it, of course, is water quality, that’s just not going to go away. And every state in the upper Midwest has a nutrient reduction strategy that was passed by the EPA and I believe in most every state it’s to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in water by 45% by 2025. So it’s you know that these regulations are out there and come keep coming at us. How do you think we’re doing in that aspect, Charlie?
Charlie Schafer 37:22
Well, at least today in subsurface water management, not very well, we haven’t made the advancements we need to make now surface water. I think we’ve done a pretty good job. I think this conservation effects assessment reports that NRCS does would indicate that that with reduced tillage, leaving a lot more crop residue on the land, using contour farming, some terraces, some improved waterways, some of the buffer work that’s been done, we made some strides. But subsurface wise, there’s a lot to be done. We are participating in a program in Ohio, that you may be familiar with the h2Ohio, catchy name, it’s pretty nice, h2Ohio, get it. And they have initially, Governor Mike dewine, a big proponent of this, they allocated 173 million bucks to come in and address nonpoint source, neutral transport that are damaging Lake Erie. And so they made request for proposals for technologies that could come in and address these issues with agriculture, and also support yield support the continuation of sustainable farming. And so they got so many applications that they said, man, we can’t even try to figure this out. We can’t decide which one’s good or which ones not. So they did another request for proposal. And they said, We want an independent third party to come in and do the assessment for us. And so Tetra Tech, big worldwide 20,000 person engineering company, you’ve heard of them. And they have a presence in Ohio won the award. And so out of all the applications, they selected our smart drainage system as one of the technologies that they want to do a deep dive into and understand the platform for managing the systems. The science behind the reductions, so they understand all the biological stuff and the chemical stuff. And then also take a look at scalability. How do we take this out to a large number of people, you talk about a 45% reduction in nitrogen phosphorus in these Great Lakes states and the upper Mississippi River Basin. Those are big numbers. So to look at the scalability these practices is critical. Unless we can apply these practices on millions of acres working with thousands of farmers will never move the needle far enough to where will be taken seriously or certainly we won’t couple up state dollars to federal dollars to leverage those resources. And so we recognize if there’s 30 million acres, as you mentioned, Kent, the upper Mississippi River Basin, and we as an industry can, let’s say, implement these practices on 1%. That’s 300,000 acres per year. That’s only 1%. That’s 100 years. And so what would it look like in order to do that, if you have an average of 40 acres per outlet, or per field, you’ve got 7500 fields per year, you need to put this practice on. That’s that survey, or LIDAR. That’s the conservation activity plan, the cap 130. That’s implementation. This is just for modifying existing systems. In retrofit, this doesn’t even have to do with upgrades or expansions, or new replacements of these systems. You talk about job security, man. But that’s the type of effort it’s going to take to make this practice valuable enough on a nationwide watershed scale to get the job done, and they get a lot of funding attention.
Appreciate that. One other thing I’d like you to touch on a little bit is, I alluded to it earlier about how we’re starting to garner some attention from some of the conservation groups, the Soil and Water Conservation Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Isaac Walton League, people like that, starting to partner with us and wanting to know how we can together work on some of these really interesting things. There’s some large corporations like Coca Cola and Walmart, some of those people that are really intrigued by water quality. Give me just a short report on some of that activity, Charlie.
Charlie Schafer 41:58
I think that’s a great question, Kent, and I think it’s great that we are seeing more of an awareness on the part of these organizations and institutions to recognize that land retirement, although in some cases is a really good option, and the Nature Conservancy, and some of these guys have done a lot of that, but they do recognize now that they can’t buy all the land in America, they don’t want to buy all the land in America that they want to weather really fragile stuff and protect it for generations, which is a wonderful thing to do. But when it comes to working Ag land, to modify the way water moves through the soil profile, or over the surface, ultimately, is going to be the solution to what we need to do and it’s really refreshing to see him step up to say, okay, we know, ag is going to be here, drainage is going to be here, rainfall patterns, rates are getting crazy, so let’s address it and deal with it. So again, an opportunity for our industry and opportunity for agriculture to do the right thing, and grow this segment of our economy. Think about how highly engineered these landscapes are going to be in 100 years. You know, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could look forward and see the types of structures that have got to be in place to manage water levels and flow rates? We think sediment, water quality siltation, all these things are just symptoms of an inadequate investment into water management structural practices.
Charlie, one of the things that I admire about you the most is you don’t just talk about solutions, but you look for them and implement them. You have another sister organization called Ecosystem Services Exchange. Tell us a little bit about what that company does, Charlie?
Charlie Schafer 43:43
Yeah. Well, thanks for asking, Kent. We realize some time back, and actually formed this company in 2010, that there was a real significant need for technical assistance. It’s fine to build a better mousetrap but unless people know how to incorporate it into a system, you’re probably not going to see it happen. And the benefits won’t accrue. And so with a couple guys, Alec Eccles, who’s been very involved in in renewables and recyclables and in Congress, Stafford and also some nonprofit work and former chief Dave White, he served as president of that company. And now Tom Kristensen who is regional chief and has worn a lot of hats within headquarters at USDA, fortunate to to work with them and some good talented planners to help producers understand how to design these systems and also work with primarily contractors who want to install drainage water management and sub irrigation systems but don’t necessarily want to go through all the calculations in engineering to design the system. And if there’s financial assistance to be had through USC, they don’t necessarily want to create a sixteen page document to meet the requirements of those plans. So the producer qualifies for financial assistance. So that’s, that’s a role that USC can play with an end game in sight of assisting these producers, not only building really high performance drainage systems, but also quantify the environmental benefits so they can capitalize on these emerging environmental markets that are in existence and will grow.
Thanks for that answer, Charlie. And it sounds like we could do a whole other episode just on ESC and pull in some of your colleagues that have a lot of history and experience in all in water quality and in and USDA and, you know, working in agriculture and government, so might be another episode. It’s always fun to when you see another avenue to continue to educate here. So we’re gonna move on to the last question here. This has been a fascinating conversation. And Kent and I are both grateful that you joined us and even more grateful for your friendship and partnership with Prinsco and Agridrain over the years. It’s fun being in business, it’s more fun when you do it with people that are like minded and that you enjoy being around. So that’s been really rewarding for us. And I just want to say that we appreciate the relationship that we’ve had. And so thank you for that. At the water table, we always do a kind of what we call water table takeaway I’m gonna take a little bit of and just let the guests leave, you know, with some thoughts they want to leave us with. I’m gonna frame that a little bit more today, just because I know you quite well, and, you know, in our industry, you certainly are seen as a visionary Charlie and so I just liked the takeaway to be a question for you. And then we’ll finish up with this is, what is your vision for our industry over the next 10 to 20 years?
Charlie Schafer 47:05
Thanks so much for your kind words, an end, it is true, we’ve had a great relationship over the years and continue to have that. It’s fun to work with people alike. And so we enjoy that a lot. I again, applaud what you’re doing here with the water table. I think it’s great to get the message out. I think our industry will embrace the ability to manage water. Now, you know, whether the direction comes from the manufacturers and distributors, or comes from the contractors, or directly from the producers who say, look, I want that option in my system, or a combination of all the above and the researchers will play a significant role in providing us with with the information necessary to understand what we need to do and how we need to do it and what we can expect from it. But it’s from here on in, I think it’s about timing. And it’s about time. We need to think about water levels and flow rates, how they enter the system, how they leave the system, how long they’re contained in the system, and how we utilize that resource while we have access to it, you know, forecasting will be a significant component. It’ll help us manage those storage facilities and capture and reuse strategic shedding of that water prior to rainfall events that are forecast either increased irrigation or reduced irrigation based on what we forecast for heat units and or precipitation. It’s a cool thing. We have so many great advancements and opportunities. Think about how medicine has grown think about how aerospace has grown all these things. And you tell me we can’t turn off a tile line when we don’t want that water to get away. I think we can I think we should.
Yeah and it’s it’s just it’s an exciting time to be in our industry and so glad you framed it that way because I’m excited for the future and gonna sound a little bit like my father here but I wish I was 10 years younger. But I’ve got at least 10-15 years left in the industry so it’s gonna be really fun to to watch the changes and see what happens because they’re coming. They’re in some ways they’re overdue but I think I think you have to also wait till an industry is ready for some of those changes and it feels like compared to 5 or 10 years ago we certainly are more ready today. Thank you both of you, Kent and Charlie for your leadership and in all of that you do with ADMC and when it comes to promoting water quality in our industry, our farmers and our industry alike owe you guys a debt of gratitude. So thank you for that and thank you for joining us today on the water table.
Charlie Schafer 50:04
Thanks, gentlemen. A lot of fun. I really appreciate and enjoyed it.
Thank you, Charlie.
Until next time. Thanks, Charlie.
Charlie Schafer 50:11
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