Wessels Living History Farm - York Nebraska Farming in the 1930s
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Irrigation Techniques
One acre of corn needs 900,000 gallons of water during its growing season. A quarter of a square mile is 160 acres, which was becoming a normal sized farm during the 1930s. So, that farm needed 144 million gallons of water a year. In normal years most of that water fell as rain.

  Irrigation well  

Cliff Peterson

But in the dry years, Cliff Peterson and other farmers were very busy with irrigation chores after his dad put in their underground irrigation well:

  • First, Cliff had to build the ditches running across the high side of the field.
  • Then, he built a series of small tubes out of cheap lathe wood used in plastering houses. These tubes were about two-inches square and four feet long.
  • A lathe box would be buried in the side of the ditch at the head of each row of corn to release water from the supply ditch into the row. Soon, Cliff and other irrigators learned how to put a piece of tin into a slot at the end of the lathe box so that the water could be turned off when the row was irrigated.
  • When all the lathe boxes were in place, the irrigation pump was turned on, sending thousands of gallons a minute down the ditch.
  • Then Cliff walked the supply ditch making sure each row is being fed.
  • Then Cliff walked to the end of the rows, checking to make sure water was flowing all way to the low side of the field.
  • As rows filled with water, Cliff walked back up to the top and shut off the lath box to that row.
  • Finally, when all the rows were watered – sometimes late at night – the pump was shut off and the field prepared for the next day.

An average farmer could install an underground water irrigation system for under $2,000 – a lot of money in the 1930s. But a new irrigation system reduced operating costs from $6.00 per acre-foot to around $4.00 per acre-foot.

Very quickly, new technologies developed to make irrigation easier.

The lathe boxes were the first target for change. The boxes took time to build and they weren't very precise in regulating water flow. Cliff remembers that a York County farmer named Art Klute began bending metal conduit pipes into siphon tubes. The tubes were sunk into the water and then thrown up over the bank of the supply ditch. The vacuum in the tube drew the water up and over the side of the ditch.
In 1934, a farmer from Cozad, Nebraska, began marketing siphon tubes. And in the 1940s, he figured out how to make them out of much lighter plastic. Cozad Irrigation Products from Nebraska Plastics became an industry leader until the technology changed.

All of these innovations laid the foundations for the development of gated pipe and center pivot irrigation systems in later decades.

Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.


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