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What I Know Of Farming




Western Irrigation








I have already set forth my belief that Irrigation is everywhere
practicable, is destined to be generally adopted, and to prove signally
beneficent. I do not mean that every acre of the States this side of the
Missouri will ever be thus supplied with water, but that some acres of
every township, and of nearly every farm, should and will be. I propose
herein to speak with direct reference to that large portion of our
country which cannot be cultivated to any purpose without Irrigation.
This region, which is practically rainless in Summer, may be roughly
indicated as extending from the forks of the Platte westward, and as
including all our present Territories, a portion of Western Texas, the
entire State of Nevada, and at least nine-tenths of California. On this
vast area, no rain of consequence falls between April and November,
while its soil, parched by fervid, cloudless suns, and swept by
intensely dry winds, is utterly divested of moisture to a depth of three
or four feet; and I have seen the tree known as Buckeye growing in it,
at least six inches in diameter, whereon every leaf was withered and
utterly dead before the end of August, though the tree still lived, and
would renew its foliage next Spring.

Most of this broad area is usually spoken of as desert, because
treeless, except on the slopes of its mountains, where certain
evergreens would seem to dispense with moisture, and on the brink of
infrequent and scanty streams, where the all but worthless Cotton-wood
is often found growing luxuriantly. A very little low Gamma Grass on the
Plains, some straggling Bunch-grass on the mountains, with an endless
profusion of two poor shrubs, popularly known as Sage-brush and
Grease-wood, compose the vegetation of nearly or quite a million square
miles.

I will confine myself in this essay to the readiest means of irrigating
the Plains, by which I mean the all but treeless plateau that stretches
from the base of the Rocky Mountains, 300 to 400 miles eastward, sloping
imperceptibly toward the Missouri, and drained by the affluents of the
Platte, the Kansas, and the Arkansas rivers.

The North Platte has its sources in the western, as the South Platte has
in the eastern, slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Each of them pursues a
generally north-east course for some 300 miles, and then turns sharply
to the eastward, uniting some 300 miles eastward of the mountains, where
the Plains melt into the Prairies. Between these two rivers and the
eastern base of the mountains lies an irregular delta or triangle, which
seems susceptible of irrigation at a smaller cost than the residue. The
location of Union Colony may be taken as a fair illustration of the
process, and the facilities therefor afforded by nature.

Among the streams which, taking rise in the eastern gorges of the Rocky
Mountains, run into the South Platte, the most considerable has somehow
acquired the French name of Cache la Poudre. It heads in and about
Long's Peak, and, after emerging from the mountains, runs some 20 to 25
miles nearly due east, with a descent in that distance of about 100
feet. Its waters are very low in Autumn and Winter, and highest in May,
June and July, from the melting of snow and ice on the lofty mountains
which feed it. Like all the streams of this region, it is broad and
shallow, with its bed but three to four feet below the plains on either
side.

Greeley, the nucleus of Union Colony, is located at the crossing of the
Cache la Poudre by the Denver-Pacific Railroad, about midway of its
course from the Kansas Pacific at Denver northward to the Union Pacific
at Cheyenne. Here a village of some 400 to 500 houses has suddenly grown
up during the past Summer.

The first irrigating canal of Union Colony leaves the Cache la Poudre
six or eight miles above Greeley, on the south side, and is carried
gradually further and further from the stream until it is fully a mile
distant at the village, whence it is continued to the Platte. Branches
or ditches lead thence northward, conveying rills through the streets
of the village, the gardens or plats of its inhabitants, and the public
square, or plaza, which is designed to be its chief ornament. Other
branches lead to the farms and five-acre allotments whereby the village
is surrounded; as still others will do in time to all the land between
the canal and the river. In due time, another canal will be taken out
from a point further up the stream, and will irrigate the lands of the
colony lying south of the present canal, and which are meantime devoted
to pasturage in common.

Taking the water out of the river is here a very simple matter. At the
head of an island, a rude dam of brush and stones and earth is thrown
across the bed of the stream, so as to raise the surface two or three
feet when the water is lowest, and very much less when it is highest.
Thus deflected, a portion of the water flows easily into the canal.

A very much larger and longer canal, leaving the Cache la Poudre close
to the mountains, and gradually increasing its distance from that stream
to four or five miles, is now in progress by sections, and is to be
completed this Winter. Its length will be thirty miles, and it will
irrigate, when the necessary sub-canals shall have been constructed, not
less than 40,000 acres. But it may be ten years before all this work is
completed or even required. The lands most easily watered from the main
canal will be first brought into cultivation; the sub-canals will be dug
as they shall be wanted.

At first, members of the Colony arriving at its location, hesitated to
take farm allotments and build upon them, from distrust of the
capacities of the soil. They saw nothing of value growing upon it; the
little grass found upon it was short, thin, and brown. It was not black,
like the prairies and bottoms of Illinois and Kansas, but of a light
yellow snuff-color, and deemed sterile by many. But a few took hold, and
planted and sowed resolutely; and, though it was too late in the season
for most grains, the results were most satisfactory. Wheat sown in June
produced 30 bushels to the acre; Oats did as well; while Potatoes,
Beets, Turnips, Squashes, Cabbages, etc., yielded bounteously; Tomatoes
did likewise, but the plants were obtained from Denver. Little was done
with Indian Corn, but that little turned out well, though I judge that
the Summer nights are too cold here to justify sanguine expectations of
a Corn-crop--the altitude being 5,000 feet above the sea, with
snow-covered mountains always visible in the west. For other Grains, and
for all Vegetables and Grasses, I believe there is no better soil in the
world.

To many, the cost of Irrigation would seem so much added to the expense
of cultivating without irrigation; but this is a mistake. Here is land
entirely free from stump, or stick, or stone, which may easily and
surely be plowed or seeded in March or April, and which will produce
great crops of nearly every grain, grass or vegetable, with a very
moderate outlay of labor to subdue and till it. The farmer need not
lose three days per annum by rains in the growing season, and need not
fear storm or shower when he seeks to harvest his grass or grain.
Nothing like ague or any malarious disease exhausts his vitality or
paralyzes his strength. I saw men breaking up for the first time tracts
which had received no water, using but a single span of horses as team;
whereas, breaking up in the Prairie States involves a much larger outlay
of power. The advantage of early sowing is very great; that of a long
planting season hardly less so. I believe a farmer in this colony may
keep his plow running through October, November, and a good portion of
December; start it again by the 1st of March, and commence seeding with
Wheat, Oats, and Barley, and keep seeding, including planting and
gardening, until the first of June, which is soon enough to plant
potatoes for Winter use. Thenceforth, he may keep the weeds out of his
Corn, Roots, and Vegetables, for six Weeks or two months; and, as every
day is a bright working-day, he can get on much faster than he could if
liable to frequent interruptions by rains. I estimate the cost of
bringing water to each farm at $5 per acre, and that of leading it about
in sub-ditches, so that it shall be available and applicable on every
acre of that farm, at somewhat less; but let us suppose that the first
cost of having water everywhere and always at command is $10 per acre,
and that it will cost thereafter $1 per acre to apply it, I maintain
that it is richly worth having, and that nearly every farm product can
be grown cheaper by its help than on lands where irrigation is presumed
unnecessary. There are not many acres laid down to grass in New-England,
whether for hay or pasture, that would not have justified an outlay of
$10 per acre to secure their thorough irrigation simply for this year
alone.





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Previous: Farmers' Clubs



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