WAUSEON – They’re contractors, farmers, and sales representatives of tile manufacturers, and they gathered last week in Fulton County from several states and beyond to receive continuing education at the only school of its kind in the Midwest.
Between March 14-18, about 65 participants from as far as Saskatchewan, Canada, and as close as Fulton County, attended the annual Overholt Drainage School, held this year at the Robert Fulton Building on State Highway 108. For one week they received intensive training in such areas as agricultural drainage system design, drainage water harvesting, and aspects of sub-irrigation.
Hosted by the Ohio State University Extension and the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District, the school offered drainage contractors, farmers, drainage tile salespeople, and other interested parties in the agricultural field the opportunity to learn different aspects of soil and water conservation systems.
Overholt Drainage School, which covers the Great Lakes region and the eastern Cornbelt states, is one of only a few schools of its kind in the United States, and the only one in the Midwest. Last week’s event attracted up to half of its attendees from Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Georgia, and parts of Canada.
The 12-hour instruction days during part of the week offered drainage contractors and farmers drainage equipment information to design drainage systems and correctly install drainage tile, as well as how to harvest drainage water to re-irrigate. Students on both beginner and intermediate levels were taught drainage layout and design, equipment use, and new technologies pertaining to agricultural tile installment.
Eric Richer, a Fulton County OSU Extension educator, said the participants, six of whom are from the county, “are either trying to get better at doing it, or else learning how to do it for the first time.” He said the school’s location, which was in Defiance County last year, rotates between drainage “hotspots” around Ohio.
Course instructors included representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation districts, and Agriculture Research Service engineers.
Richer said the drainage layout and design course was especially beneficial for area farmers. It taught them how to establish gently sloping contours on a farm in order to drain fields with gravity.
“Right in the heart of the Black Swamp, that was very important in helping make our farmland productive in this area. If we don’t have good soil, water, and air movement our crops aren’t going to grow well,” he said.
Rick Galehouse, a private drainage contractor from Wayne County, has been an Overholt instructor for 44 years. He said the week-long school, established in 1953 and priced at $650, offers myriad lessons to educate its students on system design and installation, and on problems they may encounter.
“We take people who don’t have any idea what tiling is and teach them how to design a drainage system. Most of them get a great deal out of it,” he said.
Instruction includes dividing the students into groups to design working drainage systems. The designs are presented to the class and critiqued.
“There’s no one absolute way of doing it. There are variables, a lot of variables,” Galehouse said.
An Overholt drainage design instructor since 1992, Paul Chester, said the course is basic but intense for the students.
“We lean toward the sight of doing things by hand to learn the basics of how to design the information,” he said. “They don’t get to use anything more than a calculator. There’s no design software programs that we’re using in the course. What we’re trying to do is teach the basics. We’re hoping to give them that basic knowledge of how that’s supposed to work.”
Chester, a private consultant and a retired engineer with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, said there can be an art to laying out a drainage system in a field. However, “when it comes to the actual mechanics of the design…it’s just a basic mathematical calculation.”
OSU Professor Larry Brown, a Tennessean who has led Overholt Drainage School since 1988, said, regardless of their background, every student benefits from learning about the environmental impact from agricultural drainage.
“The contractor is on the front line with the farmer. And the contractors can explain a new technique or a new practice that may help the farmer to be able to meet water quality goals,” Brown said.
Metamora farmer Scott Conrad plans to buy a tile plow for his 450 acres of land in another year or so. The cost, which includes a computer, is just under $40,000.
Conrad attended Overholt to learn more about drainage systems so he and his son can complete the project together. He said the courses were an eye-opener.
“Very informative, very well taught. There were years and years of knowledge there,” he said. “With the water quality issues we’re into with the Lake Erie Basin…I wanted to make sure I did this correctly. I wanted to make sure I had all the information that was available to me.”
Conrad said improved drainage would result in better corn and soybean yields, which would pay for his investment in the tile plow.
Chester said the Overholt school is extremely valuable.
“After the course is over a lot of folks are surprised, I think, at the amount of information they got,” he said. “Or maybe moreso, surprised at the amount of information they didn’t know before they got here. What we’re teaching them is something that they probably have not been made aware of before.”
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.