Water-quality practice draws curious farmers, contractors

Farmer installs bioreactor himself to remove nitrate from tile water.

Mercer County-area farmers, contractors and others learn about Illinois Farm Bureau Director Jeff Kirwan’s bioreactor during a county Farm Bureau and Soil and Water Conservation District field day on his New Windsor farm. The partial construction allowed visitors to view the system before 2 feet of soil covers the top. (Photos by Kay Shipman)
Mercer County-area farmers, contractors and others learn about Illinois Farm Bureau Director Jeff Kirwan’s bioreactor during a county Farm Bureau and Soil and Water Conservation District field day on his New Windsor farm. The partial construction allowed visitors to view the system before 2 feet of soil covers the top. (Photos by Kay Shipman)
By Kay Shipman

New technology to treat Mercer County tile-drained water attracted curious farmers and contractors to Illinois Farm Bureau Director Jeff Kirwan’s field near New Windsor this week.

They came to “kick the tires” of a partially constructed woodchip bioreactor thought to be the county’s first. Mercer County Farm Bureau and the county Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) hosted a field day to let farmers and contractors learn about the edge-of-field practice and view the structure.

Woodchip bioreactors – trenches filled with woodchips – use bacteria to convert nitrate in drainage tile water to harmless nitrogen gas. The filtered water flows through drainage pipes into a waterway.  

Illinois Farm Bureau Director Jeff Kirwan, right, contemplates bioreactor feedback from Laura Christianson, University of Illinois water quality professor, as Julie Armstrong, executive director of the Nutrient Research and Education Council, looks on. Christianson and Kirwan discussed benefits and drawbacks of using wood chips from tree-trimming services and municipalities.
Illinois Farm Bureau Director Jeff Kirwan, right, contemplates bioreactor feedback from Laura Christianson, University of Illinois water quality professor, as Julie Armstrong, executive director of the Nutrient Research and Education Council, looks on. Christianson and Kirwan discussed benefits and drawbacks of using wood chips from tree-trimming services and municipalities.

“We hope the farmers see this new cutting-edge practice,” said county Farm Bureau Manager Kendra Anderson. “Even if they implement one practice, it will help with the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and raise awareness.”

After receiving a bioreactor design from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Kirwan explained he acted as his own contractor, estimating the work took two days. Six-inch drainage tiles that drain 50 acres flow into the 11-by-44-foot pit that was lined with plastic sheeting from a hardware store. He installed two drainage-control structures, one upgrade and the other downgrade, to manage water levels.

Kirwan found a unique, low-cost source for woodchips – a local tree-trimming service. He reasoned farmers could find less expensive woodchip sources and work with municipalities and landscape services to find a new use for unwanted chips.

“All these municipalities chip trees. Let’s try to find a symbiotic relationship, maybe tie into a municipality trying to deal with nitrogen and help us in the farming community,” Kirwan told the 45 field day attendees.

Later, University of Illinois Water Quality Professor Laura Christianson, who is researching bioreactors statewide, advised Kirwan his woodchips’ lack of uniformity and composition may react differently and have a shorter lifespan compared to other woodchips. She took a sample to test in her lab.

Aledo farmer Brian Cirks, chairman of the county SWCD, presented Kirwan with conservation practice cost-share funding. Cirks told FarmWeek the SWCD wants to help promote bioreactors in the area. “There is a lot of curiosity (among locals). Could I use it? What is involved?” Cirks added. “Most farmers are real supportive of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.”

Kirwan, new chairman of the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council, explained he hopes to learn how different conservation practices, individually and cumulatively, influence water quality on his farm and to show other farmers.

His standing as a resource started before the field day ended. Shortly after Kirwan quizzed Christianson about bioreactor operations, a farmer neighbor briefly described one of his fields and a potential bioreactor site. “Think it would work for me?” the farmer asked Kirwan.

Bioreactor no ties to other reactor

Woodchip bioreactors are a newer conservation practice in parts of the state. Farmers and others are learning about the uses for woodchip-filled trenches to convert nitrate in drainage tile water.

Apparently, a Mercer County contractor’s friend picked up on the “reactor” name of the structure and jokingly asked his buddy if he would glow after attending last week’s field day.

A glancing reference to a nuclear reactor was a new one for several conservationists at the field day, and Laura Christianson, the University of Illinois’ woodchip bioreactor expert. “I still like the name woodchip bioreactor,” Christianson said emphatically.

Content for this story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com. 

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