Letter From Langdon: Drought, Then and Now

[imgbelt img=irrigationplay.jpg]I’m just an aging farm boy with memories of drought, doing what he learned from his dad on a hot day in 1954.


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.

[imgcontainer left] [img:floodirrigation.jpg] [source]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. 

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.

[imgcontainer left] [img:sunsetcorn.jpg] [source]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.