In the mid-1950s, Oswald's father, Ralph, dug a ditch to route ground water to irrigate his corn field. It's not the first time an American took an innovative approach to raising corn. (Photo provided by Richard Oswald)

It all started when a couple of neighbors had a well driller come to their farms to put down irrigation wells during the droughty 1950’s.

One of the things he was best at was recognizing good ideas of others when he saw them. Dad was what we call an early adopter. That’s why, in 1954, Dad started irrigating his crops. Like most sons of successful parents, I am in awe of what he and Mother accomplished in their lifetimes. That’s because Dad started life as a farm boy, walking behind two sorrel mules, plowing the weeds from between rows of corn, eventually graduating to the driver’s seat of my 170 horsepower air conditioned wheel tractor of the 1980’s.

That’s the way he irrigated too. He always followed gradual progress to a modern conclusion.

Dad had his irrigation well drilled because he wanted to grow corn. Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating, and with one of the richest of water tables in the Missouri River valley, our single well could produce 2,200 gallons per minute from a rather shallow depth of 132 feet.

Our flat, river-bottom farm is a natural for irrigation.

The author's current irrigation setup.
The author’s current irrigation setup.

His first year of irrigating, Dad dug ditches across the corn rows by hand. I was only 4 years old, but I remember him holding a sharp, shiny straight handled shovel, turning spadesful of dirt after spadesful of dirt without let up. When I asked him if it was time for coffee break, he just snorted and kept on digging. “We don’t take coffee breaks,” he said. In fact his only break was at noon, with a good hot dinner fixed by Mother and a quick nap before going back to work.

The next year, when a neighbor bought a ditcher pulled behind their tractor, Dad borrowed it and did in hours what had taken him three days the year before. In following years he bought 10-inch gated pipe that replaced ditches and siphon tubes, so that two hours of laying pipe replaced a day of ditching with a tractor and the labor of constantly monitoring siphon tubes that carried water from ditch to rows.

Then, in the fall of 1983, after he had retired and watched me and all our neighbors fight one of the worst and driest of years anyone could remember, Dad bought a center-pivot irrigator for the farm.

I’ve heard environmentalists discuss and cuss my corn crop. They say it’s bad for the soil, wastes resources, and feeds nary a human soul. One of the most offensive sins of corn, they say, is irrigation sourced from groundwater. But as I read and reread history of the nation, I see many references to corn. That’s not something that just came to pass with Dad’s generation, or Granddad’s either. In fact, the first American corn farmers weren’t sons of European immigrants, but the Native Americans they displaced.

After the summer of 1983, he decided there should be a better way. Dad looked across the river at Nebraska where center-pivot irrigators were common, and he thought about a friend in the next county south who had put up one of the older irrigators powered by water pressure. Dad decided to do him one better. So he bought a brand new irrigator powered by a diesel motor.

Ralph Oswald, right, receives an award for growing 100-bushel-per-acre corn in 1954.
Ralph Oswald, right, receives an award for growing 100-bushel-per-acre corn in 1954.

The irrigator Dad bought outlived him by 17 years. It was a quarter of a mile long, steel pipe and sprinkler heads suspended above the crop in wheels, carried across the field in a circle with the outer wheels traveling miles during every revolution and the inner wheels tracing only a tiny fraction of that, as the whole thing formed perfectly graduated circles during growing seasons in our cornfield…day after hot day, year after dry year, for 27 years. When 1984 turned out as wet as 1983 had been dry, neighbors asked Dad if he could reverse that shiny new irrigator to pump water off the field. He just smiled and answered, not to worry, we’ll need it against soon enough.

And of course he was right.

Long after Dad and Mother were both gone, the flood of 2011 struck and covered our fields and our home farm with water. Through it all the irrigator stood waiting for the next drought until a massive storm wind passed through the valley toppling Dads best idea into the water where it laid for months before the water went away.

It was ruined.

In 2012 I replaced Dads irrigator with a new one. It’s basically the same thing, only this one is powered by electricity. No more starting motors, hauling fuel, and oil changes. All I do to water my crop is flip a switch. One problem with center pivots is they can get stuck in the mud. This irrigator has bigger tires. It has never been stuck. Once again, irrigation has been made effortless as it can be.

Dad would be in awe.

I started my irrigator yesterday as high temperatures near 100 combined with a drying south wind replaced early spring rains and mud. As I watched the cool spray from water conserving drop nozzles fall onto wilted corn plants that straightened and began growing again almost immediately, I remembered standing next to Dad watching his irrigator do the same thing.

He was so proud of what he’d done, and proud to help his son do many of the same things he did, only better. That’s why this afternoon when projected high temperatures are in the upper 90s, as I watch my irrigator go round and round under a blistering sun, I will have but a single thought;

Thanks, Dad.

Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “Letter from Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.