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The Possibilities Of Irrigation








I have given an account of my poor, little experiment in Irrigation,
because it is one which almost every farmer can imitate and improve
upon, however narrow his domain and slender his fortune. I presume there
are Half a Million homesteads in the United States which have natural
facilities for Irrigation at least equal to mine; many of them far
greater. Along either slope of the Alleghenies, throughout a district at
least a thousand miles long by three hundred wide, nearly every farm
might be at least partially irrigated by means of a dam costing from
twenty-five to one hundred dollars; so might at least half the farms in
New-England and our own State. On the prairies, the plans must be
different, and the expense probably greater, but the results obtained
would bounteously reward the outlay. I shall not see the day, but there
are those now living who will see it, when Artesian wells will be dug
at points where many acres may be flowed from a gentle swell in the
midst of a vast plain, or at the head of a fertile valley, expressly, or
at least mainly, that its waters may be led across that plain, adown
that valley, in irrigating streams and ditches, until they have been
wholly drank up by the soil. I have seen single wells in California that
might be made to irrigate sufficiently hundreds of acres, by the aid of
a reservoir into which their waters could be discharged when the soil
did not require them, and there retained until the thirsty earth
demanded them.

An old and successful farmer in my neighborhood affirms that Water is
the cheapest and best fertilizer ever applied to the soil. If this were
understood to mean that no other is needed or can be profitably applied,
it would be erroneous. Still, I think it clearly true that the annual
product of most farms can be increased, and the danger of failure
averted, more cheaply by the skillful application of water than by that
of any other fertilizer whatever, Plaster (Gypsum) possibly excepted.

I took a run through Virginia last Summer, not far from the 1st of
August. That State was then suffering intensely from drouth, as she
continued to do for some weeks thereafter. I am quite sure that I saw on
her thirsty plains and hillsides not less than three hundred thousand
acres planted with Indian Corn, whereof the average product could not
exceed ten bushels per acre, while most of it would fall far below that
yield, and there were thousands of acres that would not produce one
sound ear! Every one deplored the failure, correctly attributing it to
the prevailing drouth. And yet, I passed hundreds if not thousands of
places where a very moderate outlay would have sufficed to dam a stream
or brooklet issuing from between two spurs of the Blue Ridge, or the
Alleghenies, so that a refreshing current of the copious and fertilizing
floods of Winter and Spring, warmed by the fervid suns of June and July,
could have been led over broad fields lying below, so as to vanquish
drouth and insure generous harvests. Nay; I feel confident that I could
in many places have constructed rude works in a week, after that drouth
began to be felt, that would have saved and made the Corn on at least a
portion of the planted acres through which the now shrunken brooks
danced and laughed idly down to the larger streams in the wider and
equally thirsty valleys. Of course, I know that this would have been
imperfect irrigation--a mere stop-gap--that the cold spring-water of a
parched Summer cannot fertilize as the hill-wash of Winter and Spring,
if thriftily garnered and warmed through and through for sultry weeks,
would do; yet I believe that very many farmers might, even then, have
secured partial crops by such irrigation as was still possible, had
they, even at the eleventh hour, done their best to retrieve the errors
of the past.

For the present, I would only counsel every farmer to give his land a
careful scrutiny with a view to irrigation in the future. No one is
obliged to do any faster than his means will justify; and yet it may be
well to have a clear comprehension of all that may ultimately be done to
profit, even though much of it must long remain unattempted. In many
cases, a stream may be dammed for the power which it will afford for two
or three months of each year, if it shall appear that this use is quite
consistent with its employment to irrigation, when the former alone
would not justify the requisite outlay. It is by thus making one expense
subserve two quite independent but not inconsistent purposes that
success is attained in other pursuits; and so it may be in farming.

As yet, each farmer must study his own resources with intent to make the
most of them. If a manageable stream crosses or issues from his land, he
must measure its fall thereon, study the lay of the land, and determine
whether he can or cannot, at a tolerable cost, make that stream
available in the irrigation of at least a portion of his growing crops
when they shall need water and the skies decline to supply it. On many,
I think on most, farms situated among hills, or upon the slopes of
mountains, something may be done in this way--done at once, and with
immediate profit. But this is rudimentary, partial, fragmentary, when
compared with the irrigation which yet shall be. I am confident that
there are points on the Carson, the Humboldt, the Weber, the South
Platte, the Cache-le-Poudre, and many less noted streams which thrid the
central plateau of our continent, where an expenditure of $10,000 to
$50,000 may be judiciously made in a dam, locks and canals, for the
purposes of irrigation and milling combined, with a moral certainty of
realizing fifty per cent. annually on the outlay, with a steady
increase in the value of the property. If my eye did not deceive me,
there is one point on the Carson where a dam that need not cost $50,000
would irrigate one hundred square miles of rich plain which, when I saw
it eleven years ago, grew nought but the worthless shrubs of the desert,
simply because nothing else could endure the intense, abiding drouth of
each Nevada Summer. Such palpable invitations to thrift cannot remain
forever unimproved.

In regions like this, where Summer rains are the rule rather than the
exception, the need of irrigation is not so palpable, since we do or may
secure decent average crops in its absence. Yet there is no farm in our
country that would not yield considerably more grain and more grass,
more fruit and more vegetables, if its owner had water at command which
he could apply at pleasure and to any extent he should deem requisite.
Most men, thus empowered, would at first irrigate too often and too
copiously; but experience would soon temper their zeal, and teach them

"The precious art of Not too much;"

and they would thenceforth be careful to give their soil drink yet, not
drown it.

* * * * *

Whoever lives beyond the close of this century, and shall then traverse
our prairie States, will see them whitened at intervals by the broad
sails of windmills erected over wells, whence every gale or breeze will
be employed in pumping water into the ponds or reservoirs so located
that water may be drawn therefrom at will and diffused in gentle
streamlets over the surrounding fields to invigorate and impel their
growing crops. And, when all has been done that this paper faintly
foreshadows, our people will have barely indicated, not by any means
exhausted, the beneficent possibilities of irrigation.

The difficulty is in making a beginning. Too many farmers would fain
conceal a poverty of thought behind an affectation of dislike or
contempt for novelties. "Humbug!" is their stereotyped comment on every
suggestion that they might wisely and profitably do something otherwise
than as their grandfathers did. They assume that those respected
ancestors did very well without Irrigation; wherefore, it cannot now be
essential. But the circumstances have materially changed. The
disappearance of the dense, high woods that formerly almost or quite
surrounded each farm has given a sweep to the heated, parching winds of
Summer, to which our ancestors were strangers. Our springs, our streams,
do not hold out as they once did. Our Summer drouths are longer and
fiercer. Even though our grandfathers did not, we do need and may
profit by Irrigation.





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Previous: Irrigation Means And Ends



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