Letter From Langdon: Drought, Then and Now

I'm just an aging farm boy with memories of drought, doing what he learned from his dad on a hot day in 1954.

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Dad’s memories of the farm weren’t of great weather and crops. When he reminisced the subject was always disastrous drought

I was 4 years old in 1954 when he fought dry weather by putting down a deep well for irrigation and digging ditches by hand to water his corn. 

Irrigation water pumped from deep underground is cold, so cold it numbs bare flesh and makes bones ache. While Dad sweated between the tall rows in 90% humidity with triple digit temperatures, I waded in cold water until my teeth chattered.  

It was like sitting on an iceberg in a sauna.

Days are long for irrigators. We do everything we can to save the crop while nature holds a blowtorch to it. Constant assessments are made, mental calculations every day about how the crop is looking and which field needs water most. Every cloud offers small hope for a day off from work and worry. Rain brings respite from the expense of raising water from aquifer to root zone. 

Seed companies take credit for modern corn and drought resistance, but there’s a reason why corn has been so widely grown for so long. It knows what to do in a drought. 

It’s agonizing. All plants breathe in carbon dioxide, exhaling oxygen and water. In a drought, at first, corn leaves close their pores and take on a silver look. Then the leaves curl in natural defense, limiting moisture loss. As roots find less water, the lowest leaves brown as plants try to save what’s most important: the ear.

Corn definitely doesn’t need corporations telling it what to do.

People may push themselves to heat stroke, but corn gives in little by little. An average corn plant lives 115 days. Raising corn is a race against time, not to finish first, but to reproduce. All that’s important is getting over the finish line with as many seeds as possible.

Richard Oswald
My father would flood the fields.

Another word for grain is seed. One corn seed can yield an average ear 16 rows around and fifty kernels long. That’s a payoff of eight hundred to one. (In a drought we’re lucky to get our seed back.) That same ear of corn has 80 calories — only ten from fat — and provides 10 percent of the fiber people need every day, vitamins A and D, and 3 grams of protein without a single glop of cholesterol. 

People can survive eating nothing but corn…if they have to.

Eventually Dad quit digging ditches and bought gated aluminum irrigation pipe in 30-foot sections. Most soils crack open as they dry. In a drought, river bottom gumbo cracks are two inches wide and 5 feet deep. A ten-inch irrigation pipe open at the end can carry up to 2,000 gallons of water per minute. Flood irrigation, the kind Dad did, may apply 6 inches of water to every acre before it stops soaking away into the cracks. That’s 130,000 gallons on every acre. 

I’ve walked dusty rows with a shovel looking for blocked furrows only to sink into soft mud up to my knees in flat river bottom fields. That’s because irrigation water followed the cracks underneath. 

A center pivot is irrigation pipe on wheels anchored at one end. The average one is 1,250 feet long, but they can go out to a half-mile or more. 

The first center pivots used water pressure to power themselves, but most today are electric or hydraulically powered. Standard center pivots scribe 130-acre circles and deliver around 600 gallons per minute to thirsty crops. It can take from 4 days to a week to deliver an inch of water to those fields. Some wells can’t produce fast as others.  Those are the fields that take longer to water. 

Richard Oswald
You can see the difference between irrigated corn and what lies beyond the reach of the center pivot. Green on one side; brown on the other.

Peak pollination is when corn uses the most water, almost 2 inches per week. That’s what makes soil moisture reserves so important. It is nearly impossible to answer the immediate needs of growing plants by relying solely on center pivot irrigation. 

It costs about $1,000 to fuel one irrigator applying one inch of artificial rain. Mother Nature can water thousands of fields with real rain in an hour or two if she’s in the mood. 

And it’s all free.

Every day starts the same during a drought. Crops look best at sunup. Cool nighttime temperatures and humidity allow them to revive. 

Then the sun floats higher as the day warms and dark green leaves seem to turn pale. The farmer watches the crop go downhill and does the mental calculation of how much good a rain would do today. 

As drought continues some corn breeds look like yucca plants with spiky leaves pointed at the sky. Windy days speed evaporation even more. Dad used to talk about a drought in the 1930s when the wind and heat came on so strong his corn crop died in a day. That’s the way mine looked in 1983 and again in 2002.

Times may change, but droughts are all the same.

Afternoons, when pastures brown and hay fields wilt, are the worst. Panting cattle cluster under shade, around water tanks or in ponds. It’s hard to keep them shut in as they strain through fences for a few blades of grass, green road ditch weeds — or corn in the field next door.  

Fine, baby-powder dust hangs in the air like jet contrails behind pickup trucks smoking up the road under a hot blue haze. With every passing day more vegetation gives way. When that happens radiation bakes the soil underneath making it even hotter. 

The only relief is sundown.

Red sky at night may be a sailors delight, but not for farmers in a drought.  Day ends with a gaze at the western sky for sunsets behind clouds. Colored radar pictures offer yellow and green hope moving down off the Great Divide. For a while showers build before evaporating on the Great Plains griddle.

Richard Oswald
My center pivot at work.

Occasionally a few make it through and a lucky farmer’s prayers are answered. But rain on crops beyond hope has a sour smell, like wet hay or silage. 

It’s good news and bad news rolled into one.

There’s been a lot said about “wasteful” corn production using up resources. But as big as the acres of this year’s crop are, they’re still just equal to what was planted a year after Dad made it through the heat and drought of 1936. (3) Planted acres went up in 1937 because America wanted corn. That’s a simplified reason for why acres are up this year.  But for me it’s not about Big Agribusiness or government subsidies.

Richard Oswald
Each evening at sunset, farmers in drought regions look west for some sign of rain.

Irrigation, corn, and droughts are as old as the Pharaohs. You might say it’s timeless.

I can’t claim to go that far back. I’m just an aging farm boy with memories of drought, doing what he learned from his dad on a hot day in 1954.

Richard Oswald is a fifth generation Missouri farmer, president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a regular Daily Yonder columnist.

 

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