Tile draining since age 5
Breathing new life into soil, the water witch unveiled his tile maps – a thing of beauty
God gave us the rainbow as a sign and promise that he would never flood the world again. He put Herman Geenevasen here to make sure of it.
“Well, my parents were from the Netherlands, but I’m a Canadian.” was Herman’s response when I asked the land drainage contractor from Selby, Ontario if he was a Dutchman. Herman looks almost a caricature of a working man from the Low Countries – tall, richly tanned and powerfully built, with piercing blue eyes, a frank manner, loping gait and determined movement. But despite his appearance, if we measure who and what we are by the impact we have had on the world around us, after pouring his soul into the landscape for 64 years, he might be the most Canadian of us all.
Herman’s father, Herman Senior, spent two years in a POW camp in Nazi occupied Holland and was liberated by Canadian soldiers. After that encounter, he resolved he was heading to Canada on the first boat he could find. He made his way and found a sponsor in Benjamin Franklin at Birmingham Farms – where Joyceville Penitentiary now stands. Before long he was running their land drainage division, laying clay tile with a rotary trencher. And before long he had bought his employer’s plough and was in business for himself. Richmond Ditching was born in 1953 and Herman Junior was born shortly after.
When I tell you that Herman has been draining land his entire life, it’s not an exaggeration: his family lived in a trailer and travelled from job to job plunking clay tile into the ground with their creaking machine and back-breaking labour. Herman was driving a bulldozer at age five and it’s still his favourite thing to do. What the Geenevasens have built over the generations is their personal joy, a remarkable business and force for good in Eastern Ontario agriculture.
After a few weeks of phone tag, Herman was finally coming to my farm to look at tiling our land. I was expecting a one-ton truck with a nice trim package to roll into my driveway but instead found the Canadian unfolding himself from a rather sporty bright yellow Jeep. Following introductions and a brief outline of what I needed, Herman was back in his buggy and ripping all over my farm on forty-foot circuits as fast he could go.
I had to flag him down and go for a ride in order to understand what was going on. Herman’s Jeep is basically the captain’s bridge of Richmond Ditching: the businesses’ mobile command station and data centre – and he pounds it all over the country. It’s got more computers than a nuclear sub and is hooked into radio, GPS, two dozen satellites, and probably the International Space Station. “I’m just trying to get a sense of what’s going on with your land,” Herman tells me as the machines beep and boop and we bash our heads on the ceiling as he goes over a dead furrow at 50-kilometres per hour.
I knew I was in the presence of a real water witch when he was standing in the ditch with his transit at the road culvert. “This was never going to be easy to drain: your farm is flat as piss on a pancake in the first place, but that water is going North, and I hate to see that.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, down here, along the 401 corridor the water seeks to flow south into Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence”
“What? Even if the land is sloping north?”
“You’ll just have to believe me, but the water wants to be in the river. It wants to go south.”
Unless you’re actively engaged in agriculture, you might not be aware of the lengths that farmers will go to drain their land of excess water. In my own experience as a food retailer who actively tries to educate my customers about farming, it is generally unknown and shocking to most normies that there are thousands of feet of weeping tile systematically buried under many/most farm fields. They’re even more confused why farmers would want to get rid of water. After all, plants love water, don’t they?
What Herman, his son Bryce, and their band of Merry Men do is breathe new life into soils wherever they go. And I mean that very literally: as much as proper land drainage is about making water go downstream (with its friends, where it wants to be), the actual purpose of land drainage isn’t about water: it’s about air and allowing its access into the soil. Saturated, waterlogged earth has no space for oxygen, and as surely as you unconsciously draw fresh air into your lungs right now, plant roots desire it just as much: the same goes for earthworms, fungi, and all the multivarious life that comprises healthy soil.
Obvious reasons to remove excess water from farmland are things like being able to plant earlier, harvest later, and not get equipment stuck so much. As a produce grower, I witness the consequences of poor drainage perhaps in more detail and in countless ways. You can see wet areas clear as day when you trace the size of broccoli heads down a row. Weeds flourish, diseases thrive and insect pressure multiplies where the soil lacks air. Mud demoralizes workers with slippery, heavy boots, delays cultivation and hoeing, and prevents mechanical harvesting. Driving over saturated ground only compacts it more, amplifying the problem for seasons to come.
“Good husbandry is thrown away on poor drainage,” Peter Henderson writes in his 1874 book, How the Farm Pays. The long and the short of that message is that no matter how good your efforts, or how hard you try, if the soil in waterlogged, you will lose as a farmer.
I could hear the mud tires on Herman’s Jeep a mile away as I puttered about waiting for our meeting to go over his survey. The Canadian unfolded himself again from the yellow war wagon, and showed me a quotation far more intricate than I could have imagined. This included every foot of tile, every hour of equipment, every fitting, every pound of gravel, every inch of tape: 8 rolls at $17 each (Herman’s men tape every fitting, a detail omitted by most contractors). I was impressed with the careful detail and coherent plan. Then he showed me the tile maps. They were a thing of beauty – a lifetime of working with both dirt and technology compressed onto a thin piece of paper. Carefully tied to grade, running across the slopes, with ample headers and 20-foot spacing, it amounted to over 75,000 feet of 4 inch tile on about 37 acres.
It was clear that he knew how to turn my bottomland farm into the garden I envision it as. When I got to the number at the end of the quote, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather…
Perhaps what is most interesting about Richmond Ditching’s service is that it is completely invisible to the casual bystander. Their equipment lined up impressively at the end of the day is their calling card, but the worms have the best view of Herman’s real handiwork. It operates silently, in secret, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. What you see aboveground though are the results: clean fields, bumper crops and well-ordered farms with a future.
A future, this is what I want more than anything for my farm. So, I talked to the bank, I talked with my wife, I talked to farmers, I talked to God, and with more intuition than deliberation, I asked Herman to please come help us.
The cavalry arrived a couple of weeks after strawberry season. Herman’s son, Bryce, in a matter of hours expertly cleared 2,000 feet of ditch with their 30-ton excavator to shoot water to daylight. Brandon Pounder was at the helm of their 50-ton Bron plow pounding that tile into the ground. Dean Mills – who has been a part of the Richmond Ditching team for over 20 years – kept Brandon busy with his hoe and kept us abreast of every stage of the process, finishing every step of his work with an expert hand.
And lest we forget Herman. Now, his men work hard when he’s busy with other things (Richmond Ditching runs both a land clearing/excavating crew plus the drainage gang), but when he’s right there on the ground, the plodding, organized chaos becomes a Beethoven symphony of hydraulics, caterpillar tracks and plastic. Every movement is calculated, every drop of diesel yields results, and abstract goals become concrete reality every time you turn around. And God help you if you get in his way when he’s in a bulldozer. Herman tells me he that he loves agricultural drainage the most out of all of their operations because they are the last of the businesses that still run on a handshake – but he confesses that his real dream is to build a golf course.
The last excavator just left the farm. The wizards are off to do what they’ve been doing for 70 years now: making the world a better place, one field at time. Having just witnessed the sheer volume of technology, materials, horsepower and expertise that was just applied here, I have to ponder that not only might this be the best money I’ve ever spent. Our crops next season will be the proof, but the steady stream of water coming out of our 12” main suggests we got the right men for the job. It’s flowing north.
Charles Summers owns Salt of the Earth Farm, a direct-to-consumer operation selling vegetables at the roadside, near Lyndhurst, Ontario.