The alternate name for the Great Plains is the Great American Desert. As a result, farming on the Great Plains, while always possible to some extent (though not always successful), didn’t really become as big as it is today until irrigation was introduced. While even today, irrigation is not universally used, it is more widespread than it was in the first half of the 20th century.
Of the types of irrigation practiced today, while I saw a few places with drip lines, center-pivot irrigation systems—or just “pivot” for short—were what I saw most commonly.
The pivot was invented in 1947-48, and at Pioneer Village, they had an early example of this revolutionary system. (Revolutionary because it not only watered automatically, but also because it actually made far more efficient use of water resources than earlier methods.)
In case you wondered why, when you fly over farming areas, you see a lot of green circles on the ground, this is why—the pivot turns on a central point, watering a circular area. They do make pivots now with an arm that can extend outward at the corners, but these systems are expensive, so they are not the sort of thing you replace simply because there is some new tweak that looks good.
There is a lot more about the invention of the pivot and its impact in my book, Midwest Maize, but I couldn’t resist at least showing the early version of this system.
And because you probably won’t see the actual pivot very often, but rather the outstretched arm that carries the water, here’s what that outstretched arm looks like.
The town was founded in 1871 by a group of men known as “The Arapahoe Town Company”—and with great foresight, among the first things they staked out was the park that is still at the town’s center.
Among those to arrive in 1871 was Dominicus Hasty, who raised corn, of course, but also became a surveyor and pioneer of irrigation in the region. He was also the great-grandfather of my friend Jane, and Cathy’s grandfather. Cathy’s roots are deep here – which is probably why she ended up as president of the Arapahoe Historical Society.
A lot of the farms in this area practice what is known as dryland farming. That means not using irrigation, despite being in a fairly arid region, relying on a combination of rain and drought-resistant crops. Unfortunately, during a drought, this can hurt farmers. However, when the droughts get bad, even irrigation may not help, as the water one is allowed to pump out of the ground is limited.
Cathy’s property has both dryland and irrigated fields. There hasn’t been rain for a long time, and the unwatered fields look sad. The corn has come up, but it is already mid-June, and it’s clear that it’s not going to be “knee high by the fourth of July.”
Daytime temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees, and the hot, dry wind steals what little moisture is left. People watch the weather report with the intensity of listening for a serious medical diagnosis. Will it rain? Will it rain in time? The weather report is followed by a special feature on how long this can go on before it’s too late for crops to recover. Corn plants with crisp, curled leaves can still come back, but not if they go too far.
The irrigated fields look better, but will the drought mean water is rationed?
I’m reminded of an old saying: “Humankind, despite its artistic pretensions, sophistication and accomplishments, owes its existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains!” But when there is no rain…