Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
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  • 20 Draining Illinois

    Clay drain tile used in farm fields across United States to drain wet soils to increase crop production.

    “The secret of farming is dung & drainage.” That was the credo of farming as coined in the 19th century by New York Farmer John Johnston. Before European settlement of Illinois there were 8 million acres of wetland interspersed with prairie. Almost a quarter of Illinois was made up of this prairie-wetland mosaic. It took Illinois farmers one century to reduce 8 million acres of wetland to 1 million acres of wetland as they created their farms.

    How do you drain a state? Farmers started by using ditches, hollowed out tree trunks, and stones laid on top of one another. In the mid-1800s, John Johnston, a Scottish born farmer, started using drain tiles. Drain tiles were commonly used in Europe to create farmland that had just the right amount of moisture for farm crops. Most people today think of tile as the flat, square, kitchen tiles. Drain tiles are round pipes made from simple fired red clay ranging from 6 to 24 inches in diameter and 1 to 2 feet in length. Farmers initially made these drain tiles themselves. As demand grew, mass manufacturing began.

    Drain tiles work by letting water percolate down through the soil. When water reaches the drain tile it enters through un-cemented joints. The action of water flowing through the tiles pulls more water into the system and eventually deposits the water into ditches, streams, and rivers.

    Tile draining was well known in Europe and the Middle East for centuries before it was used in the United States. Placing drain tiles in a grid pattern in a field will remove subsurface water from the soil. This allows roots to grow and oxygen to exist in the soil around plant roots to increase crop yields. John Johnston’s first experiment in tile drainage increased yield in a 10-acre plot from 5 bushels per acre to 50 bushels per acre.

    Midewin has an average of 78 feet per acre of field tile. This equals 283 miles of drain tile. It is enough to connect Springfield, Illinois to Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin.

    While draining land is good for increasing crop production it has a negative impact on wetland species. To restore Midewin, the tile must first be removed or disabled. This allows the natural hydrologic system to return and native habitats to be restored.

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