After four kids, ten moves and nearly two decades, we are still blissfully in love (most of the time) and I found myself back in the state I was born and raised in. It has definitely been a journey. In fact, on our 18th anniversary we pulled the last of our stuff up over the pass and into Montana, leaving our surprise love, Idaho, behind. But Montana is a great place. The last best place according to some. And we fully intend to explore as much of it as we can! Join us on our continued adventure through life, love and other stuff that comes with it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Irrigation Irritation

I grew up on a dairy farm.  Every morning before breakfast I bottle fed a small herd of new calves.  And every night before dinner I did the same thing.  All year long.  It was a chore.  But I may have enjoyed it.  It's something I would do again if I was called upon to do it.

In the summer around the farm things really got busy.  The whole "make hay while the sun shines" is a pretty accurate saying.  Literally.  I drove tractor and truck and fed calves and . . . changed irrigation pipe.

I learned to loath changing pipe.  For many reasons.  Finally, sometime in high school, I convinced my dad to swap chores with me.  I'd milk cows and he could change my lines.  It was a grand trade that I do not regret to this day.  I'd come in to the house at night smelly and happy having set up the parlor, milked the herd and cleaned up and fed the calves.  Of course by the time I got in he had changed my lines, cut hay, turned hay, baled and stacked hay and then come in, showered and eaten dinner.

Okay, so not quite that much.  But he did get lots done in addition to changing my lines.  Mostly because he spent 45 minutes changing them and I spent four hours milking the cows.  Still, I was the one who got the good end of the deal.

Then I went off to college and spent no more of my time changing pipe.  And where I went to college there were no pipe because it rained 95% of the time and irrigation was overkill. 

I got married, had babies and continued on my merry way.  As a bonus, my husband even did all the lawn watering.  It was grand.

Then we moved to Idaho. And it all came back. 

No, I haven't been forced into changing pipe.  But, it's all around me.  I think I suffer from some version of PTSD or something. Really, I don't even like to change the water on the lawn.  I'm terrible. 

Let me explain a few things.  It doesn't matter what TYPE of irrigation it is.  It all has its major drawbacks.  And I shall explain them here.

First, flood irrigation.  This type of irrigation involves an incredible system of canals and ditches and dams and shovels and such.  The idea is that you "flood" the field with water to irrigate it.  Here where it is generally flat, the field is basically divided into different sections by dams and one by one the flood gates are opened and each section is flooded.  Here you can see the divisions of the field running lengthwise.

Now in this photo you can see one major drawback of this flooding.  Standing water.  And where there is standing water, there are MOSQUITOES.  Many, many, many mosquitoes.

My great grandpa's property was flood irrigated.  But it wasn't flat like these fields.  It was rolling.  So there were ditches along the tops of the hills.  I spent a lot of time riding my horse across those fields of his.  And my horse is a quirky guy.  He'd come to one of the flooded spots, that you couldn't see in the tall grass--and once he hit the water, usually at a gallop, he'd either STOP suddenly or SWERVE suddenly.  Not ideal.

Another type of irrigation, and the type that I am most familiar with, is hand lines.  These lines consist of a series of aluminum pipe usually three or four inches in diameter and about forty feet long.  Each pipe has a riser about a foot tall coming out of either the center or one end and on each riser is a sprinkler head.  To "change" a line, you must first cross a barbed wire fence and turn it off, which usually involves getting sprayed in the face by freezing water while you are trying to get your pants and/or shirt out of the clutches of the barbed wire and then getting sprayed again while trying to turn it off.  Once you get it turned off, you have to dislodge the valve opener from the valve and the pipe and take it to the next valve.  All this while cussing because you haven't moved a single pipe and you are already cold, wet and cussing.

Then you cross the fence again, move your first pipe and stick it in the valve opener so you can cross the fence again and turn it on, get sprayed in the face again and pray while cussing that you get the pressure right because you need not too much and not too little.  This is very important.

Now you cross the fence a third time and get on your way down the field.  Let's assume this particular line has risers in the middle.  They are much easier to balance because you can find the middle pretty easily and they are pretty equally balanced.  End risers are not so nice.  The risers tend to flip over and get dropped on their head a lot.  That makes it more likely that they will get bent or broken, which opens up a whole new reason for cussing that I will go into in a moment.

To continue down the field you got back to the line, grab the riser by the base (very important so you don't break it off) and dislodge your first pipe.  You then pick it up, balance it and walk it to the pipe that is now spurting water at a rate you pray is appropriate.  When you get there, hopefully the spurting pipe has a slide so you can simply slide the male end of the pipe you are holding into the female end of the one you moved previously.  It does, so you slide it in, try to point the other end straight down the field (very important for good coverage), and set it down gently so it doesn't get damaged before it fills with water and gets too heavy to handle.  Then it's back across the field to your next pipe to do it again.  And again.  And again. And again.  It's a rhythm

Now rhythms are good.  Sometimes comforting.  But not when it comes to these pipe.  There's always something.  First, say you get down the way a little and your spurting pipe doesn't have a slide.  You have to jump it in.  This involves setting the male end on top of the female end, slowly backing it off so it slides off, catches the water, hits the ground and you give it a jump so it bounces back up, catches the top lip and you slam it in.  That's all good.  Until you drop the sprinkler on its head and the head breaks off.  Now what.

I'll tell you what.  Since all the extra parts for a pipe are heavy and the pipe wrench is heavy, they are all in the garage at the house.  And you are out in the back forty.  And you walked.  And this was all before cell phones and such.  So you cuss because now you have to walk all the way back to the house a half a mile, hope that you can find an extra part and a wrench and then walk back to the back forty and hope that you can wrench the broken part off without damaging the other part or breaking it off and that the part you found is the right part that fits on there and that you can actually get it on while the whole dang contraption is spurting cold water and you are now completely soaking wet and cold and have walked eight miles and still don't have this damn line changed. 

So you stick the broken part and the wrench in your back pocket and hope it stays put and isn't too much of a bother and go about your business of changing pipe.  Your boots are full of water by now and you are wondering why you even bothered putting them on because they certainly aren't doing you any good at this moment.  You are nearing the end of the line and praying that you turned the water on enough, but not too much.  If you didn't turn it on enough, you have to walk all the way back in your sloshing boots with a pipe wrench banging on your back side after you get the last pipe in and give it some more pressure.  Worse yet, if you turned it on too much, you'll have to walk all the way back and turn it down some.  This after you tried a dozen times to hold that last pipe in just long enough for the line to pressure up and keep that last pipe in there.  But alas, it blew out every time and now not only do you have to walk back and turn it down, you also have to walk back to the end again and get that last pipe to stick.

And ten bucks says that by now you are completely irritated by that stupid giant wrench in your back pocket.  And then you find something like this on your way back.

That is a blown gasket I think.  But really, at this point you could find a geyser, which is when a head works its way off and water just shoots in the air.  If you are lucky, you can search around in the grass or grain or whatever you are irrigating and find the sprinkler head that blew off and get soaking wet again while you get it back on.  Or you could find a valve plugged by any number of things--dirt, grass, rocks, fish, snakes.  And that big ole' wrench in your back pocket is probably too big for that little thing.  You need that little crescent wrench that you saw when you were in the garage an hour ago.  Sometimes a piece of stiff grass will do the trick.  But sometimes not.  This time you just pray that you can ignore it for now and when you turn the pressure down a little and walk all the way back and stick that pipe in, the pressure surge will blow the plug out.

And heaven forbid that this all went on in a grain field.  Because grain is super thick and tall and wet.  And on top of that, the ground when it is wet is super muddy and not only are you trying to carry a big long piece of aluminum through waist-high grain and getting your boots stuck in the mud and wondering again why you have boots on at all, you are trying to find the spurting pipe by the sound of the spurting and getting the pipe to the spurting by some sort of divine GPS.   All while cussing because you are soaked up to your shoulders and your boots are full of water.

I think you get the idea.

Oh, and once you get the line all the way to the other end of the field, you do this:

Load them on a pipe wagon and take them to the other end of the field and start over again. 

Good times.

But then someone along the evolution of irrigation had the brilliant idea of putting wheels on these lines.

And a little motor in the middle to move the line to the next valve.

I will confess though, I would grab onto those big ole wheels while straddling the line and see how many times I could go all the way around with it, up-side-down and all.  It wasn't easy because they certainly don't move very fast.  That was kind of fun.

But, just in case you are wondering, to turn it off you still get squirted in the face while stuck on the barbed wire and you still have to cross a fence too many times.

Or the motor wouldn't start.  And I know less about motors than I do about using a pipe wrench.  And that involved not only walking all the way back, but also finding the person who knew about the motor.  Usually these were in the grain fields, too. 

This is also what happens if there is a big wind. 

Fixing this involves taking each section off and moving it and putting it back on.  Taking it off involves a clamp. A big, heavy, knuckle-busting clamp. Putting it back on involves getting the little tiny grooves lined up (and these are not very agile pipe) and getting the clamp back on. 

Sometimes it's not the wind that makes it squiggle like that.  Sometimes it's just the lay of the land.  Either way, it's a whole day to get that taken apart and put back together.  And smashed fingers resulting in cussing.

Then there are these big boys.  The pivot.

I used to think these were amazing.  I would eye them and covet them in awe.  They are a sight to behold.  Tall, slender, all computerized.  They go in a big circle and have a giant sprayer head on the end shooting water out as far as it can to make the circle bigger.  And in the center, the spray is so fine as to not flood the little plants below while the spray gets progressively stronger as you get closer to the end.  An engineering wonder.  Some of them even have GPS and a fancy swinging section on the end to go around houses and such. 

If the line doesn't go in a full circle, there is a little contraption in the field on each end that acts as a sort of fence and when the line reaches it, a lever presses up against the gate and shuts the whole contraption off.

But since we moved here, my perspective has changed quite a bit.  I think the first big blow came when I saw a woman standing the center of the pivot with the cover open, just waiting, and a man hiking through the wet, waist high grain with a ladder over his head.

These engineering wonders are also incredibly expensive not only to buy and install, but also to repair.  When I was shopping for my sewing machine I remember specifically that I didn't want a computerized model because I didn't want to have to shell out the money it would eventually require to repair such an engineering wonder.

And then I was told how much they cost to operate.  Oh my.  Between the electricity to pump the water to the contraption and the electricity to move the pivot in its circle or half circle or quarter circle, a few years of paying for that and I could buy a house.  A nice house.

And then if the farmer wants his crop to be a square rather than a circle, he must irrigate the corners.  That involves this:

This last weekend we went for a drive.  We came upon this. 

Frankly, that looks pretty expensive. 

But I imagine something like that is insured.

As best as we could tell, the line got off track and missed the little gate that is supposed to turn it off.  Then it kept going, missing the power pole and kinking before the neighbors mail box stopped it.

Okay, I doubt the mail box actually stopped it.  But it would be a good story.

While it was really quite incredible, I'm impressed that the power pole didn't look damaged at all.  And the mail box didn't look to be damaged, either.

I'd still much rather milk cows.  

Or just pray for rain. 

1 comment:

SassyStew said...

Gosh Heidi, you make it sound so fun I'm almost sorry I grew up in town.