WOODSTOCK – Corn and soybean farmer Michael Ganschow was an easy recruit for Lauren Lurkins, the Illinois Farm Bureau’s environmental policy director, as she encouraged farmers to install woodchip bioreactors on their farms.
“I met Lauren in 2016, and less than two years later she shows up on my farm with equipment, digs a hole and fills it with wood chips,” Ganschow told a group of farmers, agricultural leaders and representatives and employees of the state and of the nation No later than Tuesday morning in the series of the IFB’s Nutrient Stewardship Field Days.
Ganschow is a sixth generation farmer in Bureau County, and his grandfather was one of the first Illinois farmers to adopt no-till systems.
“Conservation has always been an important part of our work,” he says.
A wood chip bioreactor might sound like something straight out of Marvel Comics. In reality, it’s essentially a trench filled with wood chips that filter out nitrates that would otherwise pollute the runoff water and then streams and then the Mississippi and then the Gulf of Mexico. You have the idea.
As soon as a pipe system directs drainage water through control structures and into the bioreactor, bacteria in the wood chips eat the nitrates from fertilizers that go unused by the plants, and then convert these nitrates into nitrogen gas, which is just as safe for the environment as the 78 percent of stable nitrogen in the air we breathe.
“It sounds like something out of ‘Iron Man’, but in reality it’s a ditch full of wood chips with a little plumbing,” said Laura Christianson, assistant professor in the University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences, which has 15 of the 50 or so bioreactors in total Country.
The McHenry County Conservation District, in partnership with local and state farm bureaus, installed a 30-by-30-foot bioreactor north of Woodstock last summer, which gathered nearly 100 people Tuesday to learn about the technology.
State Representative Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, and Tom Weber, R-Fox Lake, along with staff from Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and the Office of US Representative Lauren Underwood, D-West Chicago, attended the event.
“Our farmers always ask themselves three questions: How much does it cost? How hard is it to take care of? And does it work? ”Said Lurkins.
First things first, the McHenry County’s bioreactor cost nearly $ 10,000 to build, and in 10 or 15 years there will be another investment when the chips need to be replaced – or recharged, as Christianson puts it.
But does it work? Absolutely, according to the water samples MCCD volunteers had collected, frozen, and sent to Christianson for analysis since May 1st.
The bioreactor converted about 80 of the 150 pounds of nitrate to nitrogen gas – about 53 percent.
“It works, and it works well,” said Christianson, adding that the state’s bioreactors remove about 25 percent of the nitrates on average.
Most of these other sites followed the federal government’s rectangular design for a bioreactor that local Conservation Service agencies use when helping farmers design their trenches.
Christianson and her team weighed up myriad of factors at the McHenry County site and designed a square trench that works like a dream.
Bioreactors are a relatively new technology that is rapidly being further developed through experiments. The Ganschow Trench, for example, is wide open. Most of the others are sealed with plastic wrap and then rated so you may not know you stand over it.
He was joined Tuesday by Jeff Kirwan, an IFB board member who is considering installing a second bioreactor on his Mercer County farm near the Quad Cities, and a third corn and soybean farmer, Brian Corkill, whose Henry County farm is the distance between Peoria and Moline.
While Ganschow and Kirwan had a lot of inside knowledge from working closely with the office, Corkill began the process as Christianson recommended to all farmers: he reached out to his local NRCS office.
The bioreactor was the next logical step for Corkill as it advocates no-till, catch crops and only as much fertilization as necessary.
Reick asked the panel how many wood chip bioreactors would be needed to achieve the country’s nature conservation goals.
Christianson said it will take 60,000 bioreactors and better management across the board to turn the tide.
“We need every practice and widespread use of every practice,” she said. “But it starts one bioreactor after the other.”
This story was spread through a collaborative project between the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.