The Van Trump Report

How Dust Bowl Irrigation Innovations Helped Transform Agriculture

The “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s was named for the choking dust storms that swept across wide swaths of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma from approximately 1930 through 1936. By 1940, some 2.5 million Americans had pulled up stakes and abandoned the Great Plains along with tens of thousands of farms. While it ultimately became the largest human migration in US history, about three-quarters of the population in the Dust Bowl region chose to stick it out.

Not surprisingly, farm families tended to be better at adapting to and overcoming the severe conditions than their urban counterparts. Water was scarce, but many farmers could still produce enough food to feed the family with a small garden and a few livestock. Though most Dust Bowl area farmers were reliant on some amount of government support, they also were not content to passively accept their bad situation. They kept farming, year after year, crop failure after crop failure.

At least 4 distinct drought events occurred during the Dust Bowl years: 1930–31, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40. Some years had less than half of the normal annual precipitation. In Nebraska, rainfall between 1930 and 1934 dropped -27.5%, resulting in a -75% decline in corn crop yields. But as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of all invention,” and the struggles of Dust Bowl farmers did indeed spur technological progress. Most importantly, especially at the time, were advancements in irrigation techniques.

Early settlers had already begun boosting what nature provided by diverting water from rivers and streams. However, surface irrigation was not a viable option for those not close to the source. Some farmers by the 19th century had begun pumping ground water from wells either by hand or windmills. It was back-breaking work, though.

Most systems had ditches running across the high side of fields with a lathe box buried in the side at the head of each row. A series of tubes – usually fashioned from wood and later aluminum – attached to the box and stretched down the rows. When the irrigation pump was turned on, it would send thousands of gallons a minute down the ditch and into the lathe boxes. Most irrigators would put a piece of tin into a slot at the end of the lathe box so that the water flow could be stopped and started. Farmers then had to walk each row to make sure water was being delivered, and when they were filled with water, had to trek back to the lathe box and shut off the water. They then had to move the tubes and hook them up to the next lathe box, repeatedly, until all the rows were water.

The laborious system was also expensive, running the average farmer around $2,000, a small fortune in the 1930s. Very quickly, the agriculture industry began working to improve the system. When motorized pumps came along, it allowed wells to be dug deeper and much more water to be pumped out at greater and faster volumes. Rapid expansion of motorized pumped groundwater wells happened around 1945, especially in areas located over aquifers with good soils.

Then around 1948, a man named Frank Zyback revolutionized irrigation technology with the invention of the center-pivot irrigation system, which was once called “perhaps the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the replacement of draft animals by the tractor.”  

With a series of long pipes joined together and supported above the ground by trusses mounted on wheels, the center-pivot system rotates around a fixed point – typically next to a well – to disperse water through sprinklers evenly spaced along the length of the pipes. Zybach’s system could cover 133 acres of a 160-acre field, and didn’t have to be disassembled by workers when it was time to plant, till, or harvest.

It took a while to catch on, but as center pivot irrigation became more widely available after World War II, the land mass of the High Plains aquifer system transformed into one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world. Between 1930 and 2000, U.S. agricultural output approximately quadrupled, which is in part credited to Zybach’s invention. It’s estimated that more than a quarter-million center-pivot irrigation systems water fields around the world today. (Smithsonian Magazine, Living History, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl)

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