Podcast Episode 22

The Evolution of Drainage: A Journalist’s Perspective

With Guest:
  • Peter Darbishire of Drainage Contractor

Peter Darbishire joins the podcast to share his passion for water management education with stories from his 40+ year career as a writer and owner/editor of Drainage Contractor magazine. His vast career covering water management issues and trends across Europe, Canada, and the United States has given him a unique perspective on the evolution of our industry and the outlook for our future.

Episode 22 | 42:29 min
Farms here are being bought by the large farmers and the first call they make is to the drainage contractor."
— Peter Darishire

Guest Bio

Growing up on a small farm in England, Pater Darbishire found a curiosity in water and how it works. Since then, Peter Darbishire has brought that curiosity and passion into all he’s done. Darbishire has a 40+ year career as a writer and owner/editor of Drainage Contractor magazine. His vast career covering water management issues and trends across Europe, Canada, and the United States has given him a unique perspective on the evolution of our industry and the outlook for our future.

Jamie Duininck (00:02):
This is The Water Table.

Kent Rodelius (00:05):
The chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues.

Jamie Duininck (00:09):
A place for people to go find information and education.

Matt H. (00:13):
Water management is just going to become even more critical in the future.

Jamie Duininck (00:19):
How misunderstood what we do is.

Kent Rodelius (00:22):
I would encourage people to open their minds, listen to this dialogue.

Jamie Duininck (00:31):
Welcome to The Water Table podcast. Today, back in the studio, I have Kent Rodelius back with me and I have Peter Darbishire. Peter Darbishire is a long term employee and owner of a business in our drainage industry. And many people probably know Peter’s name, but I’m going to let Kent introduce Peter and Peter talk about who he is a little bit here. So welcome Kent.

Kent Rodelius (00:59):
Thank you, Jamie. It’s a great pleasure to be joined by our good friend, Peter Darbishire today. Peter and I go back a long ways, probably longer than we’d like to think. But back in the early 80s, we started meeting up at different drainage functions or industry functions and developed quite a significant friendship. And over the years I’ve learned just a ton from Peter. So it’s great to have him with us. And today we’re going to just talk about some of the stages in the development of modern drainage practices and some of the takeaways that Peter has regarding that. The entire industry is driven by increasing crop production to ensure food security. That’s really where where tiling or drainage or water table management has come into play. So that’s what we’re going to chase down a little bit today. But managing the water table is critical for farmers and producers in crop production. And we’ll delve into that quite a bit more today.

Kent Rodelius (02:04):
So Peter, I’d just like to kick it off and just ask you for a little bio on your life and your life experience with water management. And what was the big interest factor for you and in your career in this industry?

Peter Darbishire (02:19):
You’re taking me back a heck of a long time here because I was raised on a small farm or at that time it was a mid-size farm in England, about 200 acre. And behind the house, we had a low meadow that was pretty wet. And I spent a lot of my youth or as a small boy in the ditch, just figuring out what was running and how could I dam it up and how could I the water go? So that was where my interest started as a small boy in water and how it works. Moving on from there, I worked as most of us stayed on farms with machinery, and I got a real love for machinery and eventually studied and got an engineering degree in mechanical engineering. I worked for a short time with Perkins Engines in England, diesel engine manufacturer. And then was asked to come over and work with Laser Plane Corporation in Dayton, Ohio.

Peter Darbishire (03:36):
At that time, it was a pretty new business and lasers were just making their way into the farm drainage industry, using rotating lasers to control grade on drainage machines. So these interests seem to coalesce with me somehow, and that got me back into the, or into the drainage industry. I should say that my father was involved in that industry a little bit just before this with a Dutch drainage machine company called Drain Master, so I got some other influences from that side too. So I’d go out and see these machines running and was fascinated all the way around. So that’s what got me into North America. I worked for Laser Plane for virtually a year back in the early when 1974, ’75. And then was subsequently offered a job to work with a distributor for Laser Plane in Canada. So after shortly going back to England, I immigrated to Canada and started work on that side again.

Peter Darbishire (05:07):
Again, doing applications engineering in which we would, I guess the applications engineering part was, how do you fit this laser on this piece of equipment and make it work and make it whole grade and so on? So often those days the first machine, you’d have to go out and figure out the installation kit. So that was where the applications engineering came in. It was in that early part of me coming to Canada that the drainage contractor magazine had been started a year or so before. And the person who’d started that was a very good friend of, originally from the UK. And he had asked me if I could start writing some technical material for that magazine. So that’s what got me into writing. I must say I didn’t profess to be a writer of any particular note, but he taught me that side of the trade shortly after I went to work with him. And for the next three years or five years, I worked pretty well all the time in the farm drainage industry.

Peter Darbishire (06:41):
The industry was booming like crazy. There was a huge hunger for information from contractors and others in the industry. And the magazine was all-consuming. If I wasn’t going to engineering conferences to hear the researchers, I was preparing material to write for the magazine, traveling throughout the Midwest and Ontario and Quebec, picking up stories and doing photography, and just meeting people all over the place. It was really quite a thrilling time for a young person that was starting a new career, I guess. Shortly after that, myself and another fellow had the opportunity to buy that business along with some other magazines. And we spent the next 25 years building that business of magazine publishing, which we eventually sold about 15 years ago.

Kent Rodelius (07:49):
That’s a great story, Peter, of how you got into the industry and the interesting thing to me about our relationship is that you lived all of that history that we’re going to talk about today, about the development of the industry, and what came about and the significance of developments. And we’ll really probably talk through that in some stages today about the effect that major developments really changed the industry. But it’s important to say too, that the drainage contractor was the industry standard. Anybody who was interested in the way water moved or water was managed, would be very interested in seeing the drainage contractor. Kind of a specific niche, but you guys fit it well and really did amazing things to promote our industry and educate our industry. I think the education is really a key part.

Jamie Duininck (08:48):
Peter, it’s interesting to listen to your story. I’m so glad you shared that and how everything started way back. And my first connection with you, I know exactly when it was, it’ll be 21 years ago in mid May. And the reason I know that is I had, that will be in early May, May 5th was my daughter’s birthday. And she was born that 20 years, well, it will be 21 years ago in early May. And two weeks later Kent and I came to see you, that was a scheduled trip. And that was the first time I had done a trip after I had a child. And so it’s just one of those memories that I have. And part of the memory in that is the fact that we came to see you because there was something going on. I don’t even remember what the issue was, but where we wanted to get your and drainage contractors expertise and get a little bit educated on what this issue was that was happening in our area.

Jamie Duininck (09:53):
And just your breadth of information and the fact that you had already been traveling for, at that time, 20 years across the Midwest Canada, and had a lot of knowledge on what was going on in Europe was just so beneficial to us and to everyone else in our industry. And that’s like you say, there was such a hunger for knowledge. That’s changed over the years, but there still is a hunger for knowledge today, it’s just a different knowledge. So maybe talk a little bit about, I wanted to share that, but talk a little bit about, how has the business evolved in the US and Canada from the early start of your career to where it was when you retired?

Peter Darbishire (10:35):
Well, when I became involved at Laser Plan, by that time lasers were, I wouldn’t say they were universal, but probably 75 or more percent of drainers was being installed using laser controls. But the other relatively new influences were corrugated plastic pipe and the introduction of higher horsepower and different styles of installation machinery previous. Let’s say if you go back to the mid 60s, which was obviously before I was involved, just about everything was done. All the installation was done using a wheel trencher in North America. In Europe, Chain trenches were the predominant machine used. By the early 70s, chain trenches had been introduced into North America. And there was a period somewhere in the mid to late 70s where I know one manufacturer sold 100 chain trenches in the US. So that tells you a little bit about what the boom was like.

Peter Darbishire (12:14):
It was almost crazy. You couldn’t get the machines there fast enough. But also during that early 70s period, the novelty really is the introduction of the trenchless plow, which was first introduced by Daymond. Daymond was a pipe manufacturer in Canada, plastic pipe. And they were affiliated with the Red Path Sugar Company. And Red Path Sugar knew of this drainage plow called a Badger plow, which was built in England. And they brought one over to trial it in Southwestern Ontario. The first machines were graded using a transit. So an individual would stand behind the machine and there would be a target on the machine and he would look through the transit and operate a grade using radio control over to the machine. So you can see what would suddenly happen once the laser was attached to that piece of equipment, suddenly the thing blew wide open.

Peter Darbishire (13:43):
The next thing that happened was that Daymond said, “Sure, you can have a Badger plow. We’ll get you a Badger plug, but you’ve got to put in our pipe.” And a few people said, “Well, I’d like to put someone else’s pipe in, but I don’t really want to have to use your machine.” So some innovative guys came along and said, “Well, we’ll figure out how that machine works and we’ll come up with an alternative.” And that was the double link drainage plow. Subsequent to that, I made some notes here. I think there was something like six drainage plow manufacturers in Ontario at one time by the end of the 70s. And they weren’t all double link plows. There was the parallel link, single link machine that was, I think that was started by the Trianti Company in the Netherlands that became part of Bath. And that was subsequently simulated with what was then the ADS plow that became the Wolf plow. And of course, Wolf is still operating out of Ontario, building that machine and alternative machines.

Peter Darbishire (15:06):
That was a self-propelled machine, most of the double link and the Badger machines went on the back of previously used bulldozers. And the uptake on that type of plow or both those types of plows in Ontario was very, very quick. So by 1980, I don’t know what the percentage was, but I would say probably something like 90% of the pipe being installed in Ontario by 1980 was by a trenchless method. The uptake of drainage plows in the US was slightly different. Some early machines went out and if you want to call them that, let’s call them cowboys, got into the business and started burying pipe without due regard to proper design or bothering about precision on grade. And in some places, plows got themselves a bad name and I’ve always maintained, it wasn’t the plow. That was the problem, it was the operator.

Peter Darbishire (16:25):
By the same token, there were some good operators who got ahold of those machines and others from Bath, Holland Drain, and Hose, self-propelled drainage machines and they’ve done good work and they still do good work today. I don’t know whether some of those early machines are still operating, but I know some of those contractors are, and they’ve grown their businesses into multiple machine operations. So in that following 20 years, I should think we saw a surge in horsepower upgrades on all of the wheel type machines. If you think back to the early 1970s, I think I remember the introduction of the 70-60 spiker machine, which was using a Detroit diesel, 471 diesel I think. I think the horse power on that was something around a hundred horsepower. And if you think, the later wheel machines put out by Buckeye and Port industries and so on, they’d probably up around 300 or so horsepower. So it just tells you what happened there.

Peter Darbishire (17:56):
I think the biggest problem was they got the wheels spinning so fast that the soil wouldn’t come out of the buckets. So they had to force the soil out of the buckets because it couldn’t drop out against the centrifical force. It was quite interesting.

Jamie Duininck (18:12):
I think the most interesting part of that is when you talk about the early 80s, 90% of the Ontario market had switched to plows. And that certainly was not, you mentioned it, but to just talk a little bit about that, that certainly was not the case in the US, especially some of the high states at the time, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana were not even closer to 2000 is when that switch happened. So you’re talking a 10 to 20 year timeframe of which only several hundred geographical miles difference, they were doing it this way. And it took that much longer for that knowledge to transfer because of the fact that they tried it and it didn’t go well in certain areas. So it’s just a really interesting story and something to think about as we, I think it’s also part of why we started The Water Table podcast, because even today there still is so many things that are misunderstood about what we do in our industry and how it works and how our products and managing the water on the rural landscape are not negatives to the environment if done right.

Jamie Duininck (19:29):
And yet there are times where things aren’t done right for the certain geographical area and you get a problem. So that’s a great story to tell and to show that when we in our industry, when we make mistakes, how it can affect us for a long time and how we have to be responsible for what we’re doing in order to continue to grow our business and our industry. So, thanks for sharing that. I digressed a little bit, but I think it’s worth sharing because that’s exactly why we are here doing The Water Table, is to just continue to educate people on what we do, because we are misunderstood.

Peter Darbishire (20:10):
I don’t know if they still carry the American society of ag engineers, whether they still carry the drainage symposium every six years. But that was a well of information of the latest research going on in water table management and drainage in general. They were talking about the spacings that were theoretical and the depths of pipe that would produce certain crop response and so on. But the work that was done at Habana, Champagne, Illinois, and Ohio state, ARS, I guess Iowa state, there was a lot of work coming out of those places. And the researchers would present their latest information at these symposiums. And that was a big part of my job to go along there and meet these fellows and find out what they were talking about, and then transfer that through the magazine to contractors in the field.

Kent Rodelius (21:26):
I think that’s a really critical piece that made this industry grow. And for the large part, the water table management industry is a pretty small industry, there aren’t a ton of people in it. But the people that are in it are very passionate and driven to do the very best they can. And some of the things that were developed, you just spoke about Peter and the research that was done, the studies done by land grant universities here, a whole ton of research was coming out of Canada and out of Europe. And all that kind of came together. And at the journey drainage contractor, you did a good job of breaking that down and making it understandable to us, but there were certainly some giants in that industry that were doing the bulk of that and you mentioned some of those people in conversations we’ve had over the years, Norm Fonzie, who else would you throw into that?

Peter Darbishire (22:24):
I’ve got a long list here. Norm Fonzie obviously and Glen Schwab, they were both at Ohio state. Careb Drablose at University of Illinois, Stu Melvin in Iowa. There was at ARS, Jim Fouce, who did some very early work on drainage plows. This was even before they were used commercially, he was doing work. And he had an interesting link with Laser Plane, actually through that work in the early days of Laser Plane. In Ontario, we had Rosso at the University of Gwelf. And McGill MacDonald college in Quebec, there was Bob Broten. Then at, is it North Carolina, I think was Wayne Scaggs, who was, he was taking a different direction in developing a software package called drain mod that researchers could use to help them use the data they were producing. So he was quite influential. We had a drainage contractor’s workshop for two or three years in Indianapolis. And we brought in a fellow from England called Gordon Spore, who was a tremendous lecturer and educator in soil management.

Peter Darbishire (24:13):
And he put across some information that I believe there’s contractors out there who still use that in their daily talk. Soil strength, soil compaction, all these things that he put down, he put across the theories in very understandable language, let’s put it that way.

Jamie Duininck (24:36):
Yeah, that’s interesting. And lots of those names from the past, we owe a lot to them for our industry on all of the different research that came out. And most of those universities now have predecessors that have continued on with that legacy. So it’s fun to be part of this industry and to know that we continue to gather research, that’s going to help us become more efficient and to do the right thing when it comes to efficiency and environmental opportunities too, better environment.

Peter Darbishire (25:14):
The work that those guys started, as you say, has continued. And we’ve got guys like Richard Cook and so on, who are going on. And I don’t know the names of the ones who are carrying on, but that work is continuing and it’s good to see it. And they’re taking it in new directions. And I think it’s good because if we don’t continue our education, we’ll stagnate and we can’t respond to some of the challenges that are coming at us.

Jamie Duininck (25:51):
I’m pretty sure that that was exactly where I’m going is, the challenges of today are different than the challenges of yesterday. And there’s so many opportunities for us to continue to look at the opportunity that we can bring in water quality. And in many ways, it’s not inexpensive, but it’s inexpensive compared to some of the other ways to bring water quality in an urban setting. So exciting stuff that, and we’ve talked about it quite a bit here on The water table. Kent has brought in some great guests. So let’s continue talking here. How about the current market. What are you seeing for the next stages of growth and what gets you, even in retirement, excited about opportunities for our industry?

Peter Darbishire (26:46):
Well, that’s a tough one because I can’t say I’m as qualified as you are because I’m not involved in the industry in the same intensity that you are with. But I can tell you what’s happening in my neighborhood. I’ve been favored with having an honorary life membership in the land improvement contractors of Ontario group. And so I keep in touch with them fairly well. What’s happening her, and I sense that it’s happening in the US, is that what has been in the last 40 years normal depth of drainage in Ontario is 30 inches of cover. And I think that’s become the norm in the US, whereas 20 years ago, guys were still putting pipe in four feet deep and more at wide spacings. The normal spacing here is now 30 feet apart. That is generally what happens. And if there’s an existing system that they know has 60 foot spacings, they’ll split them.

Peter Darbishire (28:05):
That is normal practice. Farms here are being bought by the large farmers and the first call they make is to the drainage contractor. And if they’re unsure as to where the old tire were, they just go in with a totally new system and decommission the old one in using a different pattern that might otherwise have been used when the system was previously put in. So there is actually some research work going on in Ontario now about to answer the question, how close is close enough? And I’ve heard of some guys doing drainage on Headlands at 16 foot spacings. Well, 15 foot spacings. I think people like to use 16 because that’s the old rod. I don’t know if you know what a rod is, but it’s 16 and a half feet. And there’s a whole story there if you want to hear it?

Jamie Duininck (29:17):
We’ll save that one for the next podcast. How’s that sound?

Peter Darbishire (29:22):
That’s old horse history, that one.

Kent Rodelius (29:25):
Well, there’s been so many things that have come together. There’s been great strides made in seed technology, in fertilizers and herbicides. And then if you talk about the equipment farmers have at their disposal now with yield monitors on combines, that’s sold a lot more tile than we ever thought about selling, just seeing how the production spikes over tile lines and that’s encouraged people to split laterals and put more pipe in. So all this was a confluence that came together with what a lot of the history you’ve talked about today, Peter. It’s really interesting to put that all together. And these things don’t happen., and people in this industry, I think will really enjoy hearing a lot of the developments and the things that happened.

Peter Darbishire (30:18):
If you think back to the earlier part of my discussion, where we were talking about the boom that happened in the 70s, it wasn’t just because we had new technology and new materials that were easy to handle and so on. That was driven by increased agricultural production. And that was driven by introduction of herbicides, especially like atrazine, hybrid corn, and the commercial fertilizer. So if you put those three together, I don’t know what the yields were like in the early 60s, but by the 70s, I bet the yields of, especially corn, had leaped by a huge proportion. And then we had all the new varieties, new hybrids, soybeans that could be grown in shorter seasons. You go back 40 years ago, I bet there wasn’t much soybeans grown in Minnesota. So that’s all part of development in agriculture. And that drove the need for drainage. And as you say, Kent, the introduction of yield monitors on combines, told people how good their drainage was or wasn’t.

Jamie Duininck (31:48):
Yeah. And interesting you say that. I’m going to be sharing a podcast or recording a podcast about some of the things going on in Manitoba and that part of Canada here in the future. So I don’t want to steal anything from that, but the same thing is true up there. North of North Dakota and into the prairies of Canada, we didn’t see any corn or any soybeans growing 20, 30 years ago. And now that’s getting to be quite common, especially soybeans. And so the opportunities to manage the water on those crops are also there because they’re growing those crops.

Kent Rodelius (32:26):
I think one of the things that’s become clear to the modern farmer is that until he manages the water, he can’t take full advantage of the seed technology or the herbicide, or the fertilizer. It all comes together and it’s based on managing your water. So that’s been the growth of a lot of our business. I’d be remiss, Peter, if I didn’t ask you a controversial question. Up in Ontario, there’s licensure of machines and operators, and there’s been a resistance to that in the US to do that. Tell me a little bit about that.

Peter Darbishire (33:05):
Well, it’s certainly not controversial here. It’s a part of the industry which they still maintain is very, very important to the integrity of the work they do. The program was started in the 60s, on the initiative of the drainage contractors. They wanted to make sure that everybody was trained properly and that they had the way with all to design systems and install them to a standard that was acceptable and would last a long time. This program is endorsed and is operated by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and it is the only one in the world. And as I say, it’s very highly regarded here in Ontario. The quality of workmanship is very high as a result. And it’s not to say that it can’t be as good as that somewhere else, but it does allow people to know that if a guy has a license, he is well qualified and well-trained.

Peter Darbishire (34:29):
So operators have to go through an apprenticeship, if you like, to work with an A level operator to learn the trade. They have to go to a series of schools, which are operated by the ministry. And there are two levels of that. And there are three levels of operator, A, B, and C. C being the beginners. Machines have to be licensed. So every design of machine has to pass a licensing review. And once that design is qualified, other machines of that same make and manufacturer automatically can be licensed. But there is an inspector and the inspector goes, well I don’t want to get into too much about the inspector because he’s actually not doing as much. He cannot do as much as he used to be able to do, because there is too much to cover.

Peter Darbishire (35:52):
So maybe I shouldn’t get into that part for this discussion, but there is an inspector and the contractors make sure their equipment is kept up to standard from a maintenance point of view. I know about the failings in some places in the US about whether there should be licensing or not, I’ve been involved in quite a few of those discussions. Everyone, and perhaps correctly, are afraid of more red tape. And I guess my view is , look at the result, not at the red tape. If the result is high quality workmanship, high quality installation, then it’s worthwhile. But I know there are some drainage schools in the US in various spots, and those have done a great job in elevating everyone’s abilities. And so they’re achieving some of the same things.

Kent Rodelius (37:05):
Well, thank you for that insight, Peter. That’s interesting and that continues to be debated in some circles here in the states. One last question I held for you. What are the environmental concerns with drainage in Ontario, specifically compared to what some of the things we would face down here about, say nitrates and phosphates and, and those kinds of issues, Peter?

Peter Darbishire (37:29):
Pretty well the same, Kent. We’re draining into the great lakes to the largest degree. And Ohio, Michigan, some parts of Indiana, and Illinois, Wisconsin are draining into the great lakes. And the same issues are there with nitrates and phosphates. If they’re sourced from agriculture, then we have the same issue. I’m just trying to get my head around how to present this, but I think there’s been a huge change in field practices by farmers, which has helped this issue. If someone sees a drain outlet, they automatically think that’s the source of the problem. And as we know from our work in drainage, that isn’t the source of the problem. The source of problem is how did the nitrates or phosphates get into that water? And that’s usually through some lacking on the part of the operator of the ground. It’s not to say that we can’t use that to help alleviate the problem by storing that water or reusing it some other way or using some controlled drainage to hold it back. So we can be part of that solution as well.

Jamie Duininck (39:13):
Yeah, I think that’s a good answer. And it is true that there’s, going back to the whole discussion a little bit ago of the researchers, there’s so much going on behind the scenes. And if we can just continue to educate like they’re doing, and like we’re trying to do here to just give people opportunities to find places they can go to get their answers. So I agree with what you’re saying there, Peter, in that the challenges aren’t that much different where you go. They’re the same challenges just in a different geography. So I know we’ll continue to see those pressures as our population grows, and as we continue to get more efficient, our agricultural practices. So thank you so much for the opportunity to visit today on The Water Table Podcast. And we do something here on our podcast called The Water Table takeaway, which is really just giving you an opportunity to have the last word. What would you like to leave our listeners with?

Peter Darbishire (40:24):
Involvement in the drainage industry has been a lifetime involvement. And the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been, and the events that I’ve taken part in have been always interesting. And as Kent mentioned earlier, some long-term friendships have been formed, even though you don’t see each other very often, that friendship still remains. And those are precious things about life, that if you can be, let’s say retired but still involved, that’s something that I guess, what’s the word they say? You can’t take the farm out of the boy. Well, in my case, you can’t take drainage away from me because it’s part of me. I’ve enjoyed every part of it.

Jamie Duininck (41:25):
Yeah. And that’s part of what I didn’t realize in doing The Water Table that’s been so much fun is connecting with people from five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and still having a common interest. And that’s what you’re saying, and it’s very rewarding. And so it’s very evident to kent and I, and I think it will be to our listeners that you did have a career in this industry and you were passionate about it all the way along. So thanks so much for joining us today and we’ll catch up again and soon.

Peter Darbishire (42:03):
Thank you very much both of you. And thanks, I appreciate being invited.

Jamie Duininck (42:13):
If you enjoy what you’re listening to, you can find us on your favorite podcast platform. You can find us on Twitter or Facebook, and you can also find us at watertablepodcast.com. Thanks for listening.