Field day targets reclaimed farmland

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Ken Eck of Ireland, front, agricultural and natural resources educator for Purdue Extension-Dubois County, examined the rock he had been standing on after witnessing a mining explosion as part of a tour of Shamrock Mine during a Reclamation Field Day on Thursday. Participants learned about the mine’s reclamation practices and were able to see the mine’s efforts in returning the mined land to its previous condition as farmland. Eck’s family lives just north of the mine’s current property line.

Herald Staff Writer

IRELAND — A half-dozen soil scientists didn’t hesitate to jump into a small trench to examine the layers of soil and use knives and spades to carve out pieces of the earth.

“It’s actually not too bad,” Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Dena Marshall of Westport said as she crumbled the soil in her hands. “There’s some good root growth.”

The land was reclaimed from the Shamrock Mine, operated by Petersburg-based Solar Sources northwest of Ireland, about two years ago.

The Indiana Prime Farmland Team hosts a Reclamation Field Day every other year and on Thursday hosted the eighth one at Shamrock Mine. The all-day event in conjunction with Solar Sources and the Pike County Soil and Water Conservation District focused on how to turn reclaimed mine land back to productive farmland.

“A lot of people don’t understand that reclaimed land has to be managed a little bit different than native soils that have not been disturbed,” George Boyles, director of reclamation for Solar Sources, said. “But they can be farmed and they can produce really good crops.”

About 120 people attended the event. Boyles estimated about a third of the attendees were farmers, and the remaining group represented government services and academia.

When land is mined, topsoil and subsoil are stripped off the bedrock and stored in large piles, which changes the natural structure of soil, according to the farmland team.

“When it sits there, the actual chemistry of the soil changes,” said Jack McGriffin, a project manager in the Indianapolis office for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Reclamation.

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Dena Marshall of Westport, a resources soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for 22 years, examined plant roots in a piece of soil during the Shamrock Coal Mine’s Reclamation Field Day on Thursday. Marshall said the mine’s use of bulldozers instead of scrapers to move subsoil and topsoil into place has made the compaction of the soil more usable for farming.

The soil can lose pore space and permeability as well as living organisms and organic matter that help crop growth.

When a mine disturbs farm ground, regulations dictate the company must provide collateral for the property in the form of cash or a surety policy, called a bond. The company has to prove the land can produce crops at the same level it did before it was disturbed in order for the state to release that bond.

Using no-till farming and cover crop practices can help regenerate nutrients and build organic matter to bring the land back to full production faster. It will also help limit erosion.

“We like seeing cover crops,” Mike Owen, manager of regulatory affairs for Solar Sources, said. “We’d like to see more of them.”

Owen said the mine never rebuilds land perfectly level because of settling that then inhibits drainage. Terraces and dry dams are installed to help.

The mine also tries to limit soil compaction, which inhibits water flow and root growth, by using dozers instead of scrapers where possible to replace soil.

“We’ve learned a lot from past mistakes,” said Boyles, standing on the back of a pickup truck as the group surveyed a reclaimed field. “We actually do more than what is required. If we did just what was required, it wouldn’t look nearly as good as it does now.”

Field day attendee Linus Schnarr owns about 40 acres of ground off County Road 700W that Solar Sources leased for mining in 1999. In 2011, Solar Sources allowed him to begin farming 31 acres of that property but still retains control of the ground as not all of the bond has been released.

“They put it back pretty decent, but it settles and you get some dips in it,” Schnarr said.

Boyles added this morning it is common for ground to be leased from area property owners several years before any actual mining activity begins in a given area.

Schnarr leases the ground to another farmer who has planted a few cover crops of wheat and ryegrass and has twice planted soybeans.

“It’s green now with those soybeans,” Schnarr said. “It might do OK this year.”

His property had a ditch and he will lose about an acre of farmland because of federal regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that require the ditch be rebuilt into a more natural stream complete with rocks, stumps and logs.

Lawrence Miller owns 168 acres off County Road 750W that he leased to Solar Sources in 1998.
The mine has allowed him to farm 102 acres, which he leases to another farmer, since 2011. Miller said cover crops “seem to be the way to go” to get the reclaimed land back into production.

“It’s interesting,” Miller said of the field day presentations. “We just haven’t had any experience with land like this before.”

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