My seatmate from Chicago to Los Angeles was a native of the Windy City, a sweet woman who had never heard of center-pivot irrigation systems and didn’t believe my asseverations about those green buttons on the ground of western Nebraska some 35,000 feet below.
Lady, those are cornfields. They’re sprinkled with water from below the surface.
The center-pivot—perfected in Nebraska in the 1950s and 1960s and adopted across the state—was “the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the replacement of draft animals by the tractor,” Scientific American said. It was invented by Frank Zybach, backed by investor A.E. Trowbridge, and commercialized by Robert Daugherty.
Daugherty’s company that grew from the innovation, Valmont Industries, has annual revenue exceeding $2.5 billion and employs more than 10,000 people.
Although I am from Omaha—a graduate of the University of Nebraska—I had neither realized that the state provides the model for sustainable irrigation nor that the university leads the research in this important discipline. Football scores had distracted me.
The revelation and more came to light in February when I went a ways down the road and heard Peter G. McCornick address university alumni at swanky Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. Speaking of irrigation, the Thunderbird, built in 1950, was the Desert’s first 18-hole golf course—all grass, with 3,000 trees. Slurp!
McCornick is executive director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska. Daugherty’s foundation launched the institute with a $50-million gift in 2010. Before moving to Lincoln in 2016, McCornick lived in Sri Lanka, directing research at the International Water Management Institute. He comes from a farm in Scotland and, as one might have expected, got his Ph.D. at Colorado State University.
Irrigation lessons learned in Nebraska are transmitted to developing countries, McCornick said. The expertise is much needed in nations with acute stresses on underground water supplies. Jordan, for one, has little water and many refugees.
Then there’s India, where rising demand for eggs and meat leads to concentrated production and the consequent pollution of aquifers. “The reason that 70 percent of the world’s water is used for agriculture is because one egg requires 120 gallons to produce,” write Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler in Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. “Meat is among our thirstiest commodities, requiring 2,500 gallons per pound, or, as Newsweek once explained, “the water that goes into a 1,000-pound steer would float a destroyer.”
Pakistan and China have problems too.
Meanwhile, by developing irrigation in Africa, there’s great potential to help meet the United Nations’ goal of ending hunger by 2030. “Many believe water is an issue of money and will be best solved locally, and without the aid of techie gizmos,” Diamandis and Kotler add.
Agriculture growth is twice as effective at reducing poverty as other methods, as Robert Bertram, chief scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development, explained at the 2017 Water for Food Global Conference held in Lincoln.
Guiding that growth is the objective. One surefire way is the adoption of center pivots for irrigation. It improves efficiency over diversion—that is, the flooding of fields. But a self-propelled pipe that walks through an undulating quarter-section may be too exotic for sub-Saharan Africa and Ethiopia. Rather, the adoption of technologies like solar-powered pumps, or even treadle-operated ones, has so much potential in every aspect from boosting crop yields to improving the status of women.
“Water is the critical ingredient for risk reduction and increased income,” according to a summary of Bertram’s address, published in Water for Food Security: From Local Lessons to Global Impacts, the report on the Lincoln conference.
Ethiopia is a tantalizing yet vexing example of Africa’s problems. Aid money goes to urban development, contributing to a backward rural situation and causing the pessimism expressed by Patrice McMahon, University of Nebraska political scientist and DWFI faculty fellow. McMahon said food and water insecurity are increasing despite Ethiopia’s richness in resources. Chronic hunger affects 40 percent of the population, and the human development index—ascertained by measuring life expectancy, education, and per-capita income—is lower than in Bangladesh and Yemen; as bad as in Congo, Mali, and Mozambique; but just better than in Niger, Chad, and Central African Republic.
Help is on the way, though. High-throughput phenotyping, a means of speeding up development of new strains of plants, will give farmers better-performing varieties of crops where drought is persistent and climate change amplifies its effects.
Other gains will come from meeting water governance challenges and exploring market-based approaches to meeting demand. Here, the Murray-Darling Basin in southeastern Australia provides an example of “unintended outcomes of development and over-allocation of water” and the subsequent emphasis on sustainability.
While low-tech solutions—and availability to credit—present immediate help in Africa, the so-called blue revolution, with advanced nations taking the lead in water efficiency, will depend on technological solutions and the application of a new type of fertilizer, namely, data.
In the New York Times’s obit of Robert B. Daugherty, a Texas farmer drove up to a new center-pivot, called the Nebraskan “Sonny, and, giving it straight, said the thing looked like a “darn fine buzzard roost.”
Taking it straight from a Nebraska farmer, Bryant Burkey, “Data is a blessing and a curse.” Burkey, the owner of a farm near Dorchester, Nebraska, participated in a Water for Food Security panel discussion. Because they’re concentrating on making things grow instead of analyzing data, he said farmers need ready-made solutions.
Joining my skeptical Chicago-to-L.A. seatmate on another flight tomorrow, I would point out the emerald buttons below as emblems of a beautiful tale and affirm the transformative knowledge emanating from Lincoln, promulgating the belief in a thriving world.