Leveling & Ditching Fields
Once an irrigator “overcame gravity” to get the water to the surface, he “used gravity” to distribute water to the crops. It was not until the late 1940s that the invention of the center pivot irrigation system would defy gravity again.
While the wells, pumps and power units were state of the art technology in the 1940s, gravity flow irrigation systems were decidedly low tech. Basically the farmer got his or her ground leveled just right – so that it sloped gently away from the well head – dug a series of ditches, turned on the pump and siphoned water into each row in the field. Yet, even in these low-tech systems, there was a lot to understand and control.
First, the leveling process. Water flows downhill. But if the hill is too steep, the water will become a torrent rather than a gentle stream that can be channeled and controlled. So a farmer thinking about irrigation had to pick a part of the farm that had gentle changes in elevation. Next, he or she hired a local earth mover or bought the necessary equipment to “level” the ground. Again, a completely flat field won’t allow water to flow downhill, so “leveling” actually meant constructing gentle slopes.
Gordon Schmidt talks about how the need to level the fields led to an entirely new industry.
To level a field, a grid of stakes was set up. From the highest point of the field – where the irrigation water would begin its journey – small bumps in the field were cut down and low points filled in until there was a slope of one to three percent in one direction and half a percent to 1.5 percent slope in the other. The main distribution ditch from the well across the top of the field ran along the steeper slope, while the flatter slope allowed water to travel down the furrows with the plants in them.
In the 1940s, the topography of the field was checked with a surveyor’s transit, and the equipment moved over and over the field. Today, a laser leveling system can make minute adjustments as the land grader moves across the field.
In the 40s, farmers then laid out their distribution ditches and planted their corn usually at right angles to the ditch. The seeds were planted near the top of the furrow and as they grew cultivation operations mounded more dirt up around the base of the corn stalk.
In the summers, as the heat built and the rains normally stopped, the farmer would carefully figure out how many rows he could get water to each day based on the amount of water per hour his well would produce and the length of the rows. The distribution ditch, called a “lateral,” would be dammed so that only part of it would be filled. The pump would be turned on and water flowed down the ditch.
Diena Thieszen Schmidt was 13 when she started helping her father and brother distribute the water to the corn. She wasn’t always thrilled with the hard work. “Oh, you will never find people that prayed harder for rain than me and my brother,” Diena says. “We even meddled sometimes. One time we were so tired of irrigating and we saw there was a little leak developing on the tube someplace. So we took a screwdriver and kind of helped it along. Then shut down the motor and went home.”
Yet, somehow the work still got done and irrigation developed as one of the most important technologies in the farmer’s arsenal.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.