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More Dogs on Main Street

About 120 years ago, two brothers named Tom and Bert Potts homesteaded land that is now part of my family’s ranch in Woodland. In what I’ve always seen as an incredible leap of faith, they engineered an irrigation canal that clings to the side of the canyon and follows the contour line until it intersects the river more than two miles up the canyon. They cut it into the hillside with a team of horses and a lot of shovel work. It must have taken a couple of years to build it. If their survey had been off by a couple of inches at the beginning, the canal would have come in too low to irrigate the farmland. They were spot on, and for the 120 years since, the canal has irrigated the hay farm.

The Potts brothers used a technology that was perfected about the time the Great Pyramids were built in Egypt. It involves miles of little ditches that wind all over the rolling terrain. They would stick canvas dams across the ditch to spill the water out over the field. The dams would get moved every half hour or so, in intervals of about 10 feet, to soak another section of the field. It’s tiring, boring, tedious, and hard work. Because the canal flows 24 hours a day, somebody either has to tend the ditches all night or really drown some sections of the field by letting them take the flow overnight. In the 1950s, our predecessors put in a couple of small reservoirs to take the flow overnight. The irrigator got a decent night’s sleep, but had 4 streams to chase all day instead of 2.

That’s changing this week. We’re installing two center-pivot irrigation systems. Those are the things that make the big green circles you see if you look out the window when flying over the plains. In person, they are pretty impressive. One is 1,100 feet long; the "little" one is more than 500 feet long. They are suspended on a series of tractor tires, and electric motors drive them around the circle. Somehow they manage to keep the sections of pipe in a straight line even though the ground goes up and down hills. It’s the biggest change on our ranch since the Potts brothers got the first dribble of water down their canal.

Instead of flooding the bejeezus out of each field once a year, the sprinklers will apply about an inch of water a week. The crop yield is supposed to be more than double, and the water consumption is cut by two-thirds. In theory, the machine just goes about its business without needing any help from anybody.

The pivots are being installed by a crew of itinerant Mennonites from Texas who have a contract with the manufacturer. The truck arrived from the factory and dumped a super-sized Erector Set out on the ground. There were a million parts five-gallon buckets full of bolts and nuts, another five-gallon bucket full of washers and rubber gaskets. Piles of 6-inch-diameter pipe. In a matter of a couple of days, they converted it into something recognizable. Meanwhile, the excavating crew installed about a half mile of water line to take water from the Potts brothers’ canal to the pivot.

I didn’t go for the deluxe model, but when I flew back to Nebraska to look at this at the factory, it was pretty amazing. The top-end systems have telephones built into them, and if there is a problem say a wheel gets stuck in the mud the pivot will start calling a list of phone numbers until it finds somebody to come and un-stick it. If it’s raining, it can tell how much, and will adjust the water volume. If you need to put a little fertilizer on your soybeans, you can sit at your computer and tell the pivot how much to apply.

There’s no cell-phone service in my neighborhood, so I will have to get in the truck and drive up there to manually turn it on and off, but that’s a world of difference from chasing 4 or 5 ditches all summer. Myrle, who has irrigated this ground for the better part of 50 years, was sort of baffled by it all. Most of the old ditches can be filled in, but he will need a few of them to get water to areas not covered by the pivots. Over the years, he’s perfected a system for getting the water over it all, in the right sequence, so that fields are dry when it’s time to harvest and the runoff from one field hits certain spots in another. Nobody could do it better. He has some ditches that appear to run uphill, and he makes judicious use of gopher holes to move water to spots that couldn’t otherwise be hit.

There was nothing on the computer control panel that he recognized.

The economics of farming in Summit County are hard to justify. The season is so short that we can only raise hay. Higher value crops would be great, but you can’t get corn or wheat to mature when it snows on Labor Day. Land prices are dictated by resort development rather than ag production. It would be impossible for somebody to buy land in Summit County at market prices and make a living farming or ranching. If not for the Green Belt property tax, which taxes farmland on the basis of its farm production rather than market value, the property taxes on our place would have forced a sale a long time ago.

I’m not sure what Tom Potts would think of all this. The only thing left of his homestead is a scraggly old apple tree that marks the location of his cabin. The pivot won’t reach there, so the ditch will still flow past his place.

Tom Clyde served as Park City attorney in the 1980s and is the author of "More Dogs On Main Street." He has been a columnist at The Park Record for nearly 20 years.


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