From the Ditch to the Row

Once the water was running down the main distribution ditch, the farmer’s next challenge was to get small amounts out of the ditch and flowing down each crop row. Too much water in one row meant that it would flood quickly and water would be wasted flowing out of the field at the other end while other rows were still getting their water. There was both an art and science in controlling the water in the rows.

In the early years of gravity irrigation systems, farmers would put on rubber boots, slog through the muddy laterals and cut small “Vs” in the top of the ditch in between the rows to be watered. Controlling the amount of water flowing through the V was a frustrating process, especially when the water would start to erode the small channels. Diena Schmidt remembers how any vegetation left in the ditch would soon erode the walls of the channel. “The vegetation in the berms would whither and leave a space,” she says. “The water would come along and start seeping… And soon it would wash away. And it was very difficult to stop something like that because where it washed away it was mud.”

In the 1930s, farmers began making small wooden tubes out of cheap, used lathe lumber. These “lathe boxes” were about 1¾ square and three to four feet long. The boxes would be buried in the side of the ditch wall to distribute the water into the rows.

Gordon Schmidt InterviewGordon Schmidt remembers the lathe boxes as a major advance, at least for its time. Lathe boxes had certain advantages. They were cheap and they were uniform in size, so similar amounts of water went down each row. But they rotted out in a season or two, and there was no easy way to shut them off when the entire row had been watered. Inventive farmers figured out how to dip the lathe boxes in creosote to preserve them. They also figured out how to control the flow of water by cutting a slot in one end and inserting a piece of tin that could be raised or lowered to turn the water to that row on or off.

Video InterviewDiena Schmidt remembers helping her father John Thieszen irrigate, first with the lathe boxes and then with metal tubes salvaged from old wells. “But, they were so heavy,” she says, “because there was so much encrusted rust in them. We couldn’t carry more than three or so.”

There had to be an even easier way to get water out of the ditch, over the top and in to the rows. That’s what a farmer from Cozad, Nebraska, named Milo German, kept thinking. He knew that other farmers were taking curved pipes, dunking them in the water of the lateral and flopping them over the side. The siphon action of the tube would keep water flowing in to the row until the farmer took the tube out of the water source.

The problem, as Milo saw it, was that farmers were making their tubes out of heavy materials, like metal flues from caste iron boilers. These metal tubes held their shape, but they were heavy and farmers had to carry hundreds across the field to reach each row. Milo tried metal tubes, but wanted something better. He had heard of aluminum, but in World War II, aluminum was rationed. Then he found hard plastic tubes made in Detroit and Tennessee. In the early 1940s, he ordered a railcar of tubing to be sent to Cozad. There, he filled the tubes with sand so they wouldn’t break, heated them in hot water, and bent them into the right shape.

At first, farmers around Cozad laughed. Most farmers around town were part of an old surface water irrigation project and set in their ways. “Most [of the farmers] thought it was crazy,” says Rex German, Milo’s son. “But when the tubes were properly set and farmers got the hand of using them, they were astonished at how easily the tubes worked.”

In 1945, Milo German launched Nebraska Plastics, Inc., to manufacture his own plastic and market siphon tubes and other irrigation products around the world.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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