Drainage Contractor’s Perspective on Barriers to Conservation Drainage Adoption Report

Prepared by:  Dr. Katie Dentzman, Iowa State University; Ryan Arch, Illinois LICA; Keegan Kult, ADMC; and Tom Christensen, Ecosystem Services Exchange

The Conservation Drainage Network conducted a survey of agricultural drainage service providers in the winter of 2021/2022 to better understand their familiarity with, implementation of, and barriers to various conservation drainage practices. The digital surveys were made available online and shared via the Drainage Contractor website and CDN member promotions, including e-newsletters, emails, and social media. Near the end of the survey period, hardcopy surveys were distributed to respondents at in-person CDN member events, including conventions. The survey received 64 responses, with 40 fully completed and useable for this assessment. 97% of respondents were men and 89% worked for a company with fewer than 20 employees; most were located in the Midwest. 35% had a 4-year degree and 25% had a high school degree as their highest education.

Figure 1. States Represented by Respondents

Respondents were asked about their degree of familiarity with six different types of conservation drainage practices: woodchip bioreactors, saturated buffers, drainage water management, constructed wetlands, subirrigation, and drainage water recycling. Drainage water management was the most familiar to respondents, with 75% of drainage contractors reporting they were very familiar with the practice. Drainage water recycling was the least familiar practice, with just 23% reporting they were very familiar with it. The remaining practices clustered near 50% familiarity.

ExpertVery FamiliarModerately FamiliarSlightly FamiliarNot Familiar At AllTotal
Woodchip Bioreactors 8%49%21%18%5%100%
Saturated Buffers0%53%23%20%5%100%
Drainage Management 18%60%15%8%0%100%
Subirrigation 13%35%30%18%5%100%
Drainage Recycling3%23%35%23%18%100%
Table 1. Respondent Familiarity with Drainage Management Practices (n=40)

Following familiarity, respondents were also asked about customer demand for the same six conservation drainage practices. The lowest demand was for saturated buffers and drainage recycling; the highest was for drainage water management and subirrigation. This demand for subirrigation presents an opportunity for further information and field demonstrations, as only 46% of respondents reported very high familiarity with this conservation practice.

Woodchip Bioreactors 3%11%57%30%100%
Saturated Buffers5%5%62%27%100%
Drainage Management 24%26%39%11%100%
Subirrigation 11%26%45%18%100%
Drainage Recycling3%8%50%39%100%
Table 2. Customer Demand for Drainage Management Practices (n=38)

Related to demand, respondents also identified the barriers they thought their customers faced in adopting drainage management practices. Cost and cumbersome state/federal conservation programs were the most extreme barriers, followed by issues with rented farmland (particularly landlord buy-in). A high majority of respondents also noted that customers’ current drainage practices being considered adequate was a moderate barrier (64%) or an extreme barrier (18%). Additional barriers reported included a lack of suitable locations, other issues taking priority, and minimum flexibility in design. When asked to suggest what might improve adoption, respondents listed education, compensation, improvement in profits, and shorter timelines in conservation programs for funding approval and installation.

Extreme BarrierModerate BarrierSlight BarrierNot a Barrier at AllTotal
Lack of Awareness 13%37%45%5%100%
Cost and Return on Investment29%53%13%5%100%
Current Drainage Practices Considered Adequate 18%45%29%8%100%
Lack of Technical Assistance/Guidance11%32%42%16%100%
Cumbersome State and Federal Conservation Programs 34%47%16%3%100%
Inability to experiment with practices on a small scale3%32%39%26%100%
No Perceived Water Quality Concerns at This Time 3%37%42%18%100%
Unaware or Skeptical of Performance Advantages19%51%24%5%100%
Lack of Obvious, Visible Advantages 22%46%24%8%100%
Tenant/Rental Situations22%47%19%11%100%
Other Farm Changes are Higher Priority 24%41%30%5%100%
Insufficient Labor Available14%27%41%19%100%
Too Difficult to Install 8%5%24%27%100%
Table 3. Customer Barriers to Drainage Management Practices (n=38)

In addition to asking about the barriers their customers faced to adopting conservation drainage practices, respondents were also asked what barriers they faced in discussing these practices with these customers. Again, state and federal conservation programs were frequently cited, along with rental situations and potential low returns on the investment. 15% said their own lack of knowledge about the practices was an extreme barrier; time to design and install was a commonly referenced issue. One respondent wrote of their customers that “They have all been on a waiting list [for conservation program funding] for several years and not getting the work done that is needed” – this made the contractor hesitant to recommend conservation practices to other customers. Despite these barriers, the majority of respondents reported always discussing conservation drainage options with their customers.

Extreme BarrierModerate BarrierSlight BarrierNot a Barrier at AllTotal
Not Enough Knowledge to Recommend Them 0%16%21%64%100%
Cost and Return on Investment15%48%24%12%100%
Current Drainage Practices Adequate 18%64%12%6%100%
Lack of Technical Assistance/Guidance3%33%39%24%100%
Cumbersome State and Federal Conservation Programs 48%21%27%23%100%
Inability to experiment with practices on a small scale9%24%24%42%100%
No Perceived Water Quality Concerns at This Time 6%21%42%30%100%
Unaware or Skeptical of Performance Advantages6%42%15%36%100%
Lack of Obvious, Visible Advantages 9%52%18%21%100%
Tenant/Rental Situations24%33%30%12%100%
Schedule is Full With Conventional Drainage Installation 12%33%33%21%100%
Lack of Adequate Staff, Equipment, or Resources to Install3%27%36%33%100%
Too Difficult to Install 12%15%33%39%100%
Table 4. Barriers to Telling Customers About Drainage Management Practices (n=33)
Figure 2. Discussing Conservation Drainage with Customers

Finally, respondents reported on issues with design and installation of conservation drainage practices. 73% reported accounting for design planning when bidding costs, yet 46% also felt that devoting their resources to design put them at a disadvantage due to the very high time commitment. In contrast, only 8% reported that devoting resources to installation put them at a disadvantage. Cost share programs, it appears, would be an acceptable possibility given a reported 88% of respondents who were comfortable working with these programs despite their identified cumbersome nature.

The Conservation Drainage Network is a national partnership with the goal of improving drainage practices to meet future demands of crop production while reducing adverse environmental impacts of drainage.  The Network is composed of individuals from national and international organizations; research and education institutions; local, state, and federal agencies; industry and private business entities; and non-governmental organizations. Further information about the Conservation Drainage Network can be obtained on the web at conservationdrainage.net.