Henry County farmer Brian Corkill watched with pride as the 18,000-pound earthmover lifted buckets of black dirt out of the trench, close to the size of a semi-trailer, being dug on his property.

The project, only the fourth one in Henry County, is designed to reduce nitrates in the water flowing from farm fields and is another example of the long track record of sustainability improvements on the Corkill family farm.

“I’m a fifth-generation farmer on this land and my family takes pride in having a conservation-minded approach toward agriculture,” Corkill said. “We try to be on the front edge of the conservation practices as they have changed over time from pollinator plots, edge of field practices, and now woodchip bioreactors.”

It represents a unique partnership between the Corkill family, Illinois Farm Bureau, Henry County Farm Bureau, University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association Inc. (ILICA), and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Ryan Arch, with ILICA, explained what the bioreactor will do.

 “One water control structure will divert water flowing through the field tile drainage system into the woodchip bioreactor, while a second water control structure will maintain the drainage water level in the bioreactor to achieve an optimum retention time for the bacteria in the woodchips to remove up to 30 percent of nitrates before the water flows out,” he explained.

NRCS Agricultural Engineer Katie Gisi, who helped design the woodchip bioreactor, said one of their challenges was finding the best placement for the practice. They surveyed exposed tile lines and located the trench 10 feet beyond the inlet structure and ended the trench 20 feet before the outlet structure.

NRCS also worked with ILICA to assist with any design considerations that arose during the construction of the project, like other intercepted tile lines. The Corkills chose a capped bioreactor, which means the bioreactor’s plastic-lined trench, after being filled with woodchips, was covered with geotextile fabric and topped with two feet of soil.

Research opportunities brought Ronnie Chacon, a research specialist at the University of Illinois’ Department of Crop Sciences, to the installation.

He explained how his team will use the water samples taken from the bioreactor.

“We draw water from the bioreactor and store it in little glass bottles with 500 microliters of sulfuric acid to preserve the nitrogen in the water until we can get back to the lab,” he said. “We analyze the samples, record how much nitrogen is present, as well as the nutrient load, in the water flowing through the bioreactor. The data is also available for our research students’ learning projects.”

Lauren Lurkins, director of environmental policy for Illinois Farm Bureau, was proud of how many organizations partnered to make the project possible.

“If we can connect our farmers with these projects that contribute to science, support water quality research, refine conservation practice standards and help address the financial needs of installing bioreactors for private landowners, then everybody wins,” she said.

IFB has invested $1.5 million to date to help reduce losses of nitrates and phosphorus as part of its commitment to the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

The installation of the Henry County bioreactor capped off IFB’s series of virtual field days this summer. To learn more, visit www.ILFB.org/FieldDays.