The Country Gentleman 6(23): 361-362 (Dec. 6, 1855)

A Few Words on Underdraining

There is no subject so eminently worthy the earnest attention of American farmers, as that of underdraining. It is erroneous to suppose that all land needs underdraining, but we may assume that the greater portion of all the arable, and much of the grass land of this continent, would be much improved by the removal of all surplus water by means of underground conduits. The only question is, will it pay. Where land is sold for $5 per acre, it is hardly to be supposed that it will pay to expend six times the fee simple of the farm in underdraining it. But where land is worth from $50 to $150 per acre in its underdrained state, we hesitate not to say that nothing will pay better than an expenditure of $20 or $30 per acre in a judicious process of underdraining. For some years at least, underdraining alone will increase the products of most farms from one-third to one-half, and there are many instances on record where it has doubled the crops. WM. P. OTTLEY, of Phelps, Ontario Co., N. Y., to whom the N. Y. State Ag. Society awarded the first premium in 1851, for the best managed farm, and the second premium for experiments in draining, says: "It is safe reckoning that draining will pay for itself, with interest of cost, in two crops." This is also the opinion of John Johnston and Robert S. Swan, of Geneva, who have laid about sixty-three miles of tile underdrains on their farms.

Mr. Ottley laid a portion of his drains with stone at a cost of 40 cents per rod, and the other portion with tiles at a total cost of 31 1/2 cents per rod. The drains were dug 2 1/2 feet deep, and were cut in such parts of the field only as appeared to need underdraining. We should advocate a more thorough system, but "half a loaf is better than no bread," and, indeed, the result of this partial drainage was in the highest degree satisfactory, increasing the value of the land "not less than $5 per acre annually, together with ease and comfort of tillage."

This "ease and comfort of tillage" is no slight advantage. Underdrained land can be plowed earlier in the spring and later in the fall, than that which is undrained; and after heavy rains, while the undrained land is too wet for man or beast to work on, the drained soil is sufficiently dry to allow the usual farm labors to proceed without interruption.

Underdraining lies at the foundation of all agricultural and horticultural improvement, and it is as unwise to expend money in attempting to increase the fertility of a farm that needs underdraining by deep plowing, and good cultivation alone, or by the application of natural or artificial manures, &c, as it would be to build an expensive house on quicksand. In improving a farm, as in everything else, you must "begin at the beginning." This is the only true economy. Provide means for speedily removing all excess of water from the land, and you are then, and not till then, in a condition to carry out any other improvement that may be desired.

How often in riding along the New-York Central Railroad from this city to Buffalo, have we been saddened at the sight of so many thousands of acres of valuable land surcharged with the elements of fertility, but which, for lack of underdraining, yield crops that barely remunerate the hard-working cultivator for his labors! And yet this road passes through the best districts of the Empire State, and the farmers as a whole, will compare favorably for intelligence and enterprise, with those of any State or country in the world. We have seen this year in our trips about the country, thousands of acres of corn that would not yield ten bushels of sound ears per acre, and hundreds of acres in the aggregate, where the crop was a total failure, and this not from "exhaustion of the soil," or poor cultivation, but simply because the land needed draining. As long as the country is new, and the roots of trees afford a kind of natural drainage, land suffers little from drouths and wet seasons—it is partially underdrained. But as the roots decay out, the natural conduits are filled up, and we must go to work and provide artificial ones.

"All this is true," a farmer at our side replies, "but I cannot afford to underdrain. It is a very expensive operation, and I have not the money to spare. I know quite well that my crops this year were not half what they would have been, had the land been underdrained, but then the idea of spending $20 or $30 per acre in draining, is in my case simply impossible; I have not the means to do it with."

But would it not be better to sell a portion of your farm, and expend the money in underdraining the other portion? We know that under certain circumstances it is desirable to hold land, even if nothing is received from it, the "rise in real estate" making up far the loss; but this aside, it is far better to have 100 acres of well-drained land, than 150 that, from lack of draining, produces only half a crop. We speak advisedly when we say that the former can be carried on with half the labor of the latter, while the crops are one-third larger.

"True, but if I should sell off one-quarter of my farm, and expend the money in improving the other three-fourths, I should not be able to sell the improved 100 acres for enough more to pay me back the money buried in underdrains. People wont pay for improvements, especially for those which are out of sight."

Money judiciously expended in underdraining is not buried out of sight. Cut an underdrain through that field, and the wheat next year for a short distance on each side of it, shall be double what it is on the other portions of the field. No, sir, money buried in onderdrains is not out of sight. Every dollar next harvest shall come again rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. But, then, supposing the farm will not sell for enough more to pay the cost of draining, what do you want to sell for? This desire to sell does more to retard improvements in American Agriculture, than everything else put together. The lack of capital is a great drawback, but it is nothing compared with this restlessness which seems indigenous to a new country. This love of change will doubtless work its own cure, and in the meantime we will guarantee that in ninety nine cases out of a hundred, money judiciously expended in underdrawing a good farm in the older settled States, will pay a higher interest than that invested in any other way. In addition to this you have the pleasure of seeing your farm gradually improve under your hands, and the consciousness that you are adding to the wealth and stability of the country. Every one who has had experience in underdrawing, will bear us witness that it is of all farm labors the most fascinating, and if these few trite remarks shall induce any one to lay only a few rods of underdrains on his farm, our object will be attained, for we are quite satisfied that he will not stop, so long as there is a wet undrained acre on the farm.