If there is one thing farmers know, it is the toolbox. In agricultural circles the toolbox is our legendary companion that along with the equally famous farm shop is one of the sacred shrines. That toolbox is our survival as well as that inventive spark that has accompanied our profession from time immemorial when the ox bone became the plough.
In my family we joke about our toolboxes, how there is no such thing as ever enough… tools. As happens on birthdays and Christmas, we gift each other with another layer of tools. It’s almost a code of honor to give each other a vise-grip as a present. Which probably looks weird to the bystander. Didn’t we give vise-grips last year?
The secret is – you never have enough vise-grips. Though it might come as a surprise to some that there is no such thing as enough vise-grips.
As for equipping the farm shop, the list of tools is both lifelong and endless. Always some new tool that can help aid or just entertain the farm operation, like that amazing torque multiplier to tighten truck wheels.
Cosmologists have for some time suspected there is an alternate universe alongside ours, farmers already know this, it’s a universe filled with tools. Ratchet wrenches in sizes and lengths that might astound innocent persons. Tools made by gnomes in Lapland of rare earths found only in the volcanic core of Mount Mordor.
As for the Ring Cycle, those are really O-rings for hydraulic fittings good for 16,000 psi for cutting edge fuel injectors.
It is by these tools, multiple and inventive as they are, that we thrive as farmers. Where a task thought time consuming and onerous is with the right tools completed with some ease if not dispatch.
To admit some of these tools are handmade, a wrench heated and twisted just so to reach that otherwise impossible nut. Another wrench has been shaved off stiletto thin so now slides neatly between this and that to reach another impossible nut.
A lot of what is the farming game is that intoxicating sense of creative discovery, all its machinations, chores, jobs, breakdowns, jury-rigged repairs, hurried repairs, on-fire repairs, to add those occasional moments of sheer mechanical genius.
I am inclined to suggest that the act of being that animal called farmer is 50 percent relative to this spell of tools and the shop. An art form as much as it is a livelihood, where creativity is part of the life style and one of the singular pleasures of that creature.
The task at hand for central Wisconsin is to discover or create the tools for irrigation management. I realize that some portion of this farm sector rather not believe the central Wisconsin aquifer needs water management. To think the aquifer is still the one we grew up with as farm kids, a resource we view by custom as infinite.
Were irrigation technology still at the stage of development when I was that freckled farm kid, when the tools of irrigation were flat head Continental engines, hand lines, gun lines and wheel moves, there would probably be no need for irrigation management in central Wisconsin.
On our modest farm I have 12 center pivots, 1,200 acres, some of which is non-irrigated such as the Buena Vista Marsh where in most years I can gain a crop without supplement. To note in 2012 I did not get a crop, that 100 acres of corn went 35 bushel per acre when I can average 150 in a normal summer without irrigation.
To introduce as only some of us now remember that non-irrigation is a legitimate tool for irrigation management. As well as punctuated step-downs in irrigation demand that can be designed into a crop such as plant population and yield design. To note the United Potato Growers of America is the champion of yield design, by doing so gain a sustainable profit margin for a crop that too often out-sizes market demand.
It does seem that one of the best irrigation management schemes on a national scale is to design crops for that marketable return. As farmers we often dwell in a fairytale aura that the food we produce is for a world infinitely hungry. Experience is contrary; the limits imposed by market demand have their own cruel reality.
When the product pipeline is full, field prices collapse all out of proportion to only minor surplus. A 3-percent surplus equals a 20- to 30-percent price reduction. It is not a far reach that on a regional, as well as continental basis, the best ally of irrigation management is market value. To use an aquifer to produce $2 corn or $5 potatoes serves neither the farm sector nor the public good.
So the tools available to amend irrigation demand begin with crops designed for market need and the profit margin. No longer to tolerate bubble acreage by growers or processors that use the public resource to manipulate crop value. Once irrigated crops are designed for assured value we can begin to create additional tools to reduce irrigation demand.
Time-of-day watering is an accepted method to more effectively use water, gaining upwards of two-tenths of an inch per application, to include better use of the power grid. Were irrigators “challenged” to utilize time of day methods, significant water savings could be anticipated.
On a continental basis is a broader question, whether pursuit of the 300-bushel corn crop is in the best interest of agriculture and our regional aquifers. This when balanced against a 150- to 200-bushel yield with 30- to 50-percent less water and a similar reduction in fertilizer, yet to include improvement in downstream phosphorus and nitrogen.
Demographers believe there is at the present use rate only another century of potash deposits available. In this light irrigation management is a continental goal, to the benefit of the Ogallala in Texas and Nebraska as well as in central Wisconsin.
The drought of 2012 exacerbated the irrigation issue, inspiring what is a land-rush equivalent to irrigate lands formerly un-irrigated. To propose some support mechanism to insure crops against drought might go a long way in stemming “irrigation panic.”
Adding irrigation complicates input costs, fertilizer use, inspires farm sector competition, with the real possibility of over-supplying the market only to suffer a disastrous price break. Irrigation is regularly used to manipulate product quality, some is worthwhile, some has no bearing on nutritional value, in the end little more than a food fashion but requires enormous amounts of additional water.
The classic case is those French fries that stick out the top of the box that taste no better than the ones that don’t. Irrigation management brings to the farm sector a new set of criteria offering better control of the market as well as the ecology.
The farm sector knows tools; our only limitation on irrigation management is our power to imagine the tools. We know the goal, it’s simple enough, a sustainable aquifer, a sustainable landscape. As farmers we cannot disagree with that. There is no profession on earth more allied to the sustainability of this earth than what farmers do for a living.
That sustainability is where we start out as farm kids, and the life that went with being that kid. Such that it is one of the secret indelible passions of being a farmer, to make the world safe for another generation of farmers, as equates to another generation of farm kids. Ultimately this is what irrigation management is about; of being fair to the next generation.
Sustainability is as Mister Spock said aboard the Starship Enterprise, “to live long and prosper.” It should come as no surprise the same goes for the aquifer.