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Cursed by the Ditch Witch


PatriotGrassWhispererIt has taken me an entire year to settle down after the ditch witch drove me to a major meltdown over the destruction of some fine functioning sod.  When you mess with a pen-wielding, picture-taking, grass farmer and his prairie family, there will be consequences.  The pent up frustration over this “dumb and dumber” sequel has been sequestered for fear of repercussions against the landowner I do business with, the fencing system, or the grazing animals, by a slighted highway department.

Since I no longer lease this grass farm and Gradall Fever season is upon us, I figured it’s time to open the can of worms in hopes that common sense may prevail somewhere else in the watershed for the good of water quality and save some money.  I preface my story by the fact that this is not an isolated incident in ditch maintenance around where I live whether it is town, county or state.  There seems to be a mentality of digging deeper and steeper with little regard for soil loss that will erode worse than before without as much as a check dam to slow the water down.  But hey, I guess that’s job security!

In six years managing this 200 acre property with two very conservation-minded landowners we built perimeter and subdivision fences around a planned grazing system, installed an NRCS-EQIP funded water system to all the paddocks and grazed over 500 head of custom grazed grass-finished cattle worthy of New York City Chefs.  The farm fields are divided by a town road that dead ends at the residence.  Because of the field’s proximity to the road, the gentle shoulders were always neatly mowed by the owners with an occasional grazing period when moving cattle across.  The nice slope also made it very convenient to off-load cattle trailers right into the pastures.

Driving up the lane was a pleasing experience with shoulders fully vegetative, shallow ditches dry, grassland birds chirping from their nest boxes on the adjacent fence posts and delicious looking pasture swards fattening cattle, deer and turkeys.  To me it was a wall-to-wall buffer that my watershed would be proud of.  However this scene would soon be cursed by the wicked loader witch of the north.

DitchWitchDestructionI remember it vividly, the sunny Saturday morning clouding over with the impending storm of diesel smoke and heavy metal staged to desecrate the beautiful greenery on Monday.  I angrily grumbled to the landowner, “They’re not…?”  He didn’t know what their exact plan was and since he didn’t own the right-of-way his hands were tied.  All we could do was hope that someone in authority would see there were no water quality or drainage issues and move to another location.

A sick and utterly disappointing feeling came over me seeing the runway of glistening, clay sod as I approached the farm.  Since it had rained the night before, soil erosion was rampant and a delight for the camera to witness the soil massacre by the digging operation.  It was bad on many levels.  No consultation with, or respect for the landowners that maintained these roadsides free of charge.  No conservation sense to recognize this area was part of a whole system to slow down and filter the water cycle.  The operator had no concept of slope dynamics and didn’t realize that you can’t mow a cliff.  And that following orders for the sake of a job without questioning its validity (he’s not in the military) seems wrong.

The lunacy didn’t stop.  To add more dollars and more man/machine hours to the now, ‘project’, the ditching brain trust thought it advantageous to bring in rip-rap stone to hold the now bleeding soil.  Because of the excavation and depth of the ditch, it was also now necessary to put in new culvert pipes to access the gates.

It’s not like I’m a brain surgeon or anything, but by doing some farmer math this exercise in futility cost way more than it was worth.  Conservatively, 50 ton of stone costs $450.00; 2- 20’ culvert pipes cost $300.00 and the machine/trucks/labor charge might be pushing 1500 bucks for a total of + 2250 dollars to increase water velocity and tear up a perfectly functioning water retention system.  It doesn’t add up.

I’m confused at what the actual goal was.  I’m wondering who has authority over this kind of nonsense that gives us farmers a bad name for releasing sediment; after all it came off an adjacent crop field.

SprayingAroundRoadSignsWhile I’m on the subject of lunacy, what’s the deal with weed killer around road signs and the apparent disregard for application rates?  Traveling south from my farm, I became acutely aware of the almost shameful way a fan tip sprayer was used to apply Roundup around road markers.  The trail of chemical discontent went from the sign all the way to the culvert, carrying the message to the Chesapeake Bay that we need our heads examined.  Here’s my problem:  We spend public money and labor on chemicals to kill the sod that holds the soil that will erode down the stream because the sod is killed.  Tell me this makes any sense for water quality.  What about the half-lives of these herbicides?  Will we see them in our water a decade from now?  How is this strategy helping mitigate the concern over the TMDL issue?   Will these questions lead to any teachable moments?

Do Departments of Transportation get a pass on creating this erosion in the name of public safety?  Is there an annual storm-water training refresher program for employees and bosses so they recognize how their physical and monetary decisions affect sedimentation? And what is my recourse? Because in my humble opinion and camera lens, this issue of digging deeper and putting in bigger culverts to handle faster water fails to address the root cause The water cycle is broken.  Wouldn’t it be best to invest more resources in promoting prevention then keep putting Band-Aids on these open sores?

We have channeled our energies into solving this problem and it starts with keeping the soil covered with sod.  Add a wetland complex or two and invest in tree planting and you have a regenerative way to slow down the moisture and lift the curse of the ditch witch.  In the words of Patrick Henry, “Since the achievement of our independence, he is the greatest Patriot, who stops the most gullies.”

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Troy Bishopp
Troy Bishopp, aka “The Grass Whisperer” is a seasoned grazier and grasslands advocate who owns, manages and linger-grazes at Bishopp Family Farm in Deansboro, NY with his understanding wife, daughters, grandchildren and parents. Their certified organic custom grazing operation raise dairy heifers, grass-finished beef and backgrounds feeder cattle on 180 acres of owned and leased pastures. Troy also mentors farmers on holistic land management for the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition as their regional grazing specialist. This award-winning free-lance writer, essayist and photographer maintains a website presence at www.thegrasswhisperer.com