Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ground Zero

It was on the cover of this month's National Geographic. They call it where the food chain begins. I call it ground zero...soil/plant/water.

The last three weeks are the toughest weeks for me. In a word, "irrigation". The food chain starts with soil, plants and water. During the dry weeks of late July and August, I supply the water.

It is tough work for an old man. Every evening after putting in my day at the feed mill, I'd head out to the berry field to change lines. 65 lengths of 40' pipe had to be moved each evening. It's the job I love to hate, or better yet, hate myself because deep down inside, I love doing it.

Step one was to strip down to my jeans. I pity the poor folks out on Highway 20, seeing an old man, shirtless moving pipe. Not the best of visuals!

Step two was getting the mainline changed for the next set. On one end of the field I would pull off two lengths of 4" main and hook in the 4" to 3" reducing elbow to which the actual sprinkler pipes would be connected. I was running two lines, so midway down the main, I would have to pull the line apart, remove a 4" "T" with a 4-3 reducer, move it down two lengths and hook it back in.

With the mainline back together, I was ready for the real work. One by one, each 40' sprinkler pipe had to be detached. Like a tight rope artist, I would find the balance point and then carry the pipe across 16 rows of berries, making sure the sprinkler head remained upright, not dragging in the dirt or ripping through the strawberry plants, then in one smooth move, latch it into the preceding pipe, lay it down in the row and pull it tight. Never breaking stride, I'd be walking back across the 16 rows of berries angling towards the next pipe. Two lines, each about 1/4 mile long were moved in around 2 hours. (You will note, no mention is made of a helper..this is a solo mission.)

When each line is laid, I walk its length, making sure the latches are properly secured. Nothing pisses me off more than to blow a line just as they come up to pressure due to a pipe I didn't get latched correctly.

The lines ready to go it's time to start the pump. We have a 6 cylinder Chevy on a two wheeled trailer. It is direct driven to the pump, also on the trailer. Our water source is a shallow well, pulling the water up only about 40'. With a pipe wrench I unscrew the primer, stuff a funnel in the pipe and fill the pump and throat with water until it boils over the top of the funnel. Quickly I pull off the funnel and thread the cap back on. Pulling out the choke and setting the throttle I press the button that overrides the "Murphy switch" and fire up the motor. Water flies out of the pump packing, telling she is primed. Carefully I open the main valve, being careful not to loose prime. Life giving water starts filling the lines.

Bit by bit I open up the throttle and main valve as the lines fill. As the sun sets lower, the temptation is to really let her rip and get the lines up and going. It is a temptation I quickly squash. Too much pressure too quick will cause a major hammer that will blow out the end plugs on one or both of my lines producing a very muddy ordeal.

Patience pays. Within 10 minutes water is sputtering out of all 65 sprinkler heads. That's when I give her the gas and open up the main valve. With the lines up to pressure, I take one more walk down each line making sure the sprinkler heads are standing upright. This requires a bit of timing and a willingness to get wet. If a sprinkler pipe is laying a bit on one side, there will not be even coverage. Waiting for the head to turn away from me, I swoop in and immediately grab the interrupter so as not to get too much spray in the face. Stopping the spinning of the head, I can then straighten the pipe, letting go of the interrupter only after I have directed the nozzle away from me and am a couple of steps into my escape. The only issue is, the sprinklers on either side of me are merrily coming around on their circle routes, wetting me down.

Hooked in one of my belt loops on my jeans is a piece of wire..sure sign of a man working hand lines. Any sprinkler that might be plugged gets the wire treatment. Using the same technique as straightening a line, I swoop in on the the offending sprinkler head. With wire in hand, I ream out the plugged nozzle, always getting a good face full of cold water when the combo of my jill poking wire and the pressure behind the blockage breaks it loose and sends it flying out somewhere into the field.

The lines up and running, I double check the pump, set the pressure shut-off and call it good. I'll be back out around midnight or so to check on things before turning in for the night. And so it goes for 3 weeks or more.

There is nothing that I know of that matches the feeling I get watching the sun set behind the veils of water produced by 65 irrigation nozzles. I complain. I tell folks how irrigation is a complete pain in the ass. I even talk about how I can't wait for the day when I finally admit I'm too old to be packing pipes across a field.

That's all bullshit.

Deep down inside I take a real pride in setting a straight line. I like the idea that at 55 I can still do a 1/2 mile line change start to finish, by myself in a little over two hours.

This is ground zero...where our food starts. It begins with soil, plants and someone willing to put in the effort to make sure the life giving water gets delivered.

Yeah, it's a pride thing.


Chris Crook said...

Good read Martin.

SDP45 said...

Brought back more memories for me. We had wheel lines, which in their own way were very temperamental. The motor in the middle of one line was very tired, and we had to help it along the field by climbing along the wheel to help it go. Must have been odd for passing motorists!
After applying water to the line, you would always check for plugged heads. As this was water from the canal, sometimes just the wire would not do, so a small crescent wrench was always at the ready. Sometimes the wire will not remove the remains of some small creature in the head.
One challenge you might not have had was securing the wheel line for the winter. We would drive them into the ditch next to the lateral canal, which offered some wind protection. Many posts would be propped into the feet along the length to keep them there. One year, after I left, a windstorm hit while there was no water in the lines (which would have held them down better) and the whole line took off and ended up in the county road next to the field. Oops!
Our pump was electric, but had a hand pump primer on the end that fed water to the pump. It was real easy for the prime not to hold, because of the age of the whole setup.
Fond memories. Thanks for bringing them up again.