Try to put yourself in the place of a farmer during the 1950s and 60s.

You were probably “dry land farming,” planting your crops and hoping for rain. Or if you were lucky enough to have land that could be leveled and water under your land, you were irrigating with ditches or gated pipe. It was backbreaking work, but you knew it produced results.

Then along come these expensive new inventions called a center pivot with the strange names – Zimmatic, Electrogator, Alumingator, Kroy, HiGroMatic, Oasis, Reinke, T-L and RainCat. Even the industry leader had an incongruous name. What does a “Valley” have to do with irrigation?

So it was big step for the early adopters to take the risk on that new technology. There were several factors that pushed them to make the decision to install center pivots.

  • Labor. Many farmers were facing farm labor shortages that had begun during World War II. More and more young people were leaving the rural areas and farmers couldn’t find the help they needed during irrigation seasons to lay siphon tubes or haul around gated pipes.
  • Land prices. Other farmers were looking to expand, but all of the flat land that could be irrigated by gravity was already priced out of the reach of the average farmer. Fertile but hilly land was going for only $40 to $50 an acre in places like Northeast Nebraska. Before center pivots, there were no good ways to get water to it.
  • Drought. The most important factor pushing farmers in the semi-arid Great Plains toward pivots was a series of dry years during the early and mid-50s.

William Luebbe (left) was one of those early center pivot adopters. He says that he spent around $14,000 for his system – a large expense at the time – but it was worth it. “It enhanced the income,” he says. “It kind of restructured the whole farming. You could count on a crop, and that’s why it was important. It looked better to a bank, too, if they could count on it.”

Robert Daugherty (right) says that his company, Valmont, was well aware of the appeal of pivots for his farmer customers. “The thing that sold it was it made water available to a crop. It made water available to land that was not level that heretofore couldn’t really be practically irrigated. And we also had a device that would work on big fields – meaning a 160-acre field that was a typical sized unit – and farmers liked that.”

One of the first to adopt the new pivots was the same man who first went into business with Zybach to build them. In 1957, A. E. Trowbridge formed a partnership with his son-in-law, William Curry, and installed two systems north of Atkinson and another near Columbus. The first year, they got corn yields of over 100 bushels an acre on sandy, marginal land. So, the next year, Trowbridge and Curry installed two more systems and got yields approaching 150 bushels an acre. Later, they each went their own way, and William Curry eventually managed 18 center pivot systems with good results. His neighbors noticed.

Gradually, more and more of these strange contraptions began appearing on farms across the Midwest. Neighbors talked to each other and learned that the technology worked. And when the next set of dry years came, more and more farmers were willing to make the investment and install center pivots. The process of installing a modern center pivot system is a fascinating cross between high tech tools and tinker toys.

In fact, the government is now helping fund the transition away from gravity irrigation to pivots. Originally, farmers thought that gravity systems were more efficient because all of the water went directly on the ground while pivots, it was thought, lost a lot of water to evaporation. But, studies showed that gravity systems did not irrigate a field evenly. At the top of the rows, near the supply pipe or furrow, there was too much water for the plants to use efficiently and there was too little water at the bottom of the field. Center pivot systems distribute the water much ore evenly. Also, studies showed that there was very little evaporation into the air except on the windiest days, and newer pivot systems place sprinkler heads very near the ground. Finally, pivots are much more efficient to manage. Setting, monitoring and moving gated pipe irrigation systems is very labor intensive. And if the farmer doesn’t manage the system well a lot of water runs out the end of the field into the ditch where only the weeds and fish can use it.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2006. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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