Annual Report – Vermont State Board of Agriculture, Volume 8: 168-171 (1884)


An Address given at the Springfield Meeting by J. R. Walker.

In opening the discussion on drainage, in this short paper, nothing original is claimed. The art of freeing land from superfluous water, by means of covered drains, or causing it to flow off in channels, or through porous substances, is not of modern origin, but dates back far into antiquity.

The Romans were well acquainted with the art of draining, and appear to have practiced it to a great extent. Their writers on agriculture, Pliny, Cato, Palladious and Columella all mention it; and some of them give very minute directions for the formation of drains, with stones, wood and straw. Various remains of ancient drains in England show that land draining had been practiced there from a remote period. About the year 1650, Captain Walter Bligh published a work in which he not only gives directions for "systematic drainage of watered meadows, bogs and marshy grounds, but founds his rules upon principles, which the latest experience and most scientific researches have shown to have been eminently correct." In 1764 Elkinton, a farmer of Warrickshire, established an original system of drainage, in which, he was himself, remarkably successful in tapping and drawing off water from springs in a few deep ditches. (His system, however, did not contemplate the removal of water occasioned by rains.) In 1823, Mr. James Smith of Deanster, introduced the system of frequent, or thorough drainage, which, in fact, was the same as recommended by Captain Bligh nearly two hundred years before and is the system now adopted by our most successful engineers and practical drainers. It consisted, in short, of constructing a series of parallel underdrains in the direction of the steepest descent. At the bottom a main drain was made of sufficient capacity and descent to convey away all the water collected by the smaller drains.

Underdrains were formerly made with stones, timber, brush and even weeds at the bottom, and covered with soil. These materials are fast giving place to drain tile, which is decidedly the best, and the cheapest, where tile can be obtained near where they are manufactured, or at reasonable rates. The first machine for the manufacture of tile was invented by the marquis of Tweedale. In 1835, tiles were introduced in this country by John Johnson of Geneva, N. Y., a Scotchman by birth, who imported patterns of drain-tile from Scotland, and caused them to be made by hand labor to be used upon his own farm. In 1848, John Dalafield, Esq., of Seneca Co., N. Y., imported from England a patent tile machine. Since that time tile draining has been diligently pursued in that part of New York, and so well are the land owners pleased with the results, that upon some single farms, in that vicinity, more than fifty miles of tile underdrains have already been constructed.

An instance of the value of drainage upon a wheat crop is related. During a year when the wheat was badly affected by midge, upon seven farms adjoining not drained, only nine bushels of poor wheat per acre was obtained. While upon the drained lands of Mr. Johnson, twenty-nine bushels per acre of fine wheat was harvested. This one crop would pay the entire expense of drainage and leave the land in fine condition to produce large, heavy crops in all future time. But the nine bushels from the undrained land would not pay for cultivation. Let us glance at some of the many advantages of underdraining.

1st. It lessens or prevents the injurious effects of drouth. There is no danger of making land too dry by underdraining it. It is a fact, fully established by experience, that thoroughly drained land is less liable to suffer from drouth than those that are undrained. It is the common observation of farmers that wet lands are sooner affected by drouth, than those more dry and porous. The former bake and become hard and compact in a dry time and do not readily absorb moisture from the atmosphere; but a well drained, well pulverized and porous soil, absorbs like a sponge and receives into its pores the dew and watery vapor of the air. Hence, the benefit in a drouth of deep tillage and subsoiling on land naturally or artificially drained. The moisture descends to the lower portions of the soil and is then taken up by the rootlets that permeate it in search of food. Subsoiling upon wet land is of little benefit, as the subsoil, when thoroughly saturated, soon settles to its original hardness and while loosed has a greater capacity to retain water, thereby rendering it cold and unproductive. It is chilled by evaporation; soils that retain water are correctly called cold, while those of a more sandy and porous nature are called warm. They are warmed below by the rain water which percolates through from the surface, and are heated by the direct rays of the sun. Drainage renders soils earlier in spring, it allows us to work sooner after rains, and keeps off the effects of cold longer in the fall, thereby lengthening our seasons. It raises the temperature and thus produces the effect of a warmer climate.

By the experiments of Mr. Parks in a bog in Lancashire, it appears that by giving free passage to the water through drainage, its temperature, at the depth of seven inches, may be raised to ten degrees above that of undrained adjoining land of the same quality.

It improves the mechanical texture of the soil, and hastens the decay of vegetable matter. These are some of the benefits to be derived from drainage. Most farmers are willing to acknowledge its utility, but the question arises, "how far is it advisable in Vermont?" When contemplating any farm improvements the first question that naturally suggests itself is, "will it pay?" That wet land is greatly benefited by underdraining, is very well understood, and generally conceded by all intelligent farmers. But whether such improvement would pay is another question that admits of no general answer. There is some land in Vermont that will pay well for draining, and there is a great deal that might as well be let alone. Drainage is an expensive operation, and it depends upon circumstances whether it can be done at a profit. Where good land is worth $50 per acre it might be profitably drained. But if land is very cheap, it would be a questionable outlay. There is much land in Vermont that would be improved by drainage, that cannot be profitably drained. The question whether it will pay depends upon the value of the land before drainage, the cost of the operation, and the value of the land when drained. It also depends upon the crops you wish to raise upon the land. If you wish it for a vegetable or flower garden, to raise Indian corn or wheat or for a market garden, it would be advisable to thoroughly underdrain it. But for a grass crop it would not pay the outlay. It might be better to top dress and keep it in a permanent grass crop. In general, perhaps underdraining may be considered a question of profit and loss. A farmer who has money to loan at six per cent., if he can by underdraining his land cause it to produce enough more to pay him the interest on his investment, can afford to do it, as his capital will be safely invested in real estate.

I do not believe with the late Horace Greeley that all lands that are cultivated require draining. It will be a long time before the farmers of Vermont will invest much money in draining gravel knolls. Much of the land in this part of the State is naturally drained, or so nearly "dry enough," that it would never pay to underdrain it. There are some meadows that are too wet in spring and fall perhaps, that produce heavy crops of grass annually. Bogs and marshes must be drained or not cultivated. Where a suitable outfall can be secured it is a profitable investment. Slopes of hills, with a subsoil nearly impervious to water, and having different strata, between which the water from the highland above works out and saturates the soil, will be greatly benefited by underdraining. The most of my draining has been on land of this description. An open ditch or catch-water was made at the upper part of the field to prevent the surface water from above flowing over it. The ditches were sunk up and down in the direction of the steepest descent thirty inches deep, and about two rods apart. Some of the drains were laid with two inch sole tile, and the remainder with stone found upon the field. They have continued to discharge water freely for twenty years, and I cannot discover any material difference between the tile and stone.

The drains upon these farms are constructed of stone, with a board at the bottom, and the drain, which is like a culvert, is made large to prevent clogging. An open drain is better than none, but a covered one is far better. Stones dumped into a ditch without making the culvert are sure to clog soon and become worthless. The first two crops more than paid the whole expense of drainage, and I have since had a productive field, in place of a nearly worthless one.

Messrs. J. R. Gill, Spaulding and Whitney of this town, who have done extensive works in drainage on their farms, through which runs a trout brook, and three crops at most has paid them for the entire cost of drainage. Some of the land upon these farms was so wet and soft that a team could not be driven over it, and the poor hay was carried off on poles. It is now comparatively dry, and among the most productive land in town. Instances of the good effects of drainage upon crops might be multiplied, but it is unnecessary, it is generally conceded. There is prose as well as poetry in underdraining. The rural poet may write in flowing numbers of the beauties of drainage, and laud the man who causes two blades of grass to grow where but one grew before. It is pleasant to talk and write about. Figures show it to be profitable as well as philanthropic and poetical. But when this flowery poet takes the initiative of real labor, dons the short frock, overalls and rubber boots, walks into the ditch of mud with one foot stretched before the other and there wields the pick, or plies the spade from " early morn till dewy eve," he will find the poetry of drainage oozing out his finger ends, and the whole subject will assume a very decided prosaic appearance; and unless he can let the job to some one who can dig better than they can write, drainage, with him, is among the things that were talked about.

Do not expect to drain your land without solid hard work by somebody. Use a team and plow to open down as far as practicable. A man with a good team, and a plow, will loosen more dirt than ten men can with picks; cover the drains with a team and scraper; provide yourself with a copy of some standard work on drainage, and, if your work is extensive, consult a practical engineer. Do not be deterred from improving your land by drainage because there is hard work in it, but persevere, remembering that most of the desirable ends of life are reached by the free use of courage, muscle and brains.

Mr. Lane of Cornwall likes stones put in loose for drainage. W. B. Rice thinks they should be set arching at bottom of ditch and then filled in above. General opinion was that on account of moles, tile was the best.