Translating Food Technology

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Thursday April 26, 2018

As urbanites from the U.S. coasts and from other countries fly into and over Nebraska, a perpetual question arises from spring through fall: Why do High Plains farmers plant their fields in the form of giant crop circles?

As you can see from this satelite image of the Platte River valley, Nebraska's farmscape has today become a patchwork of nearly uniform circles, varying in color and shade, dotting the landscape. Those circles represent a significant change in how the common crops, particularly corn, wheat, and sorghum, are grown.

Why do farmers do that? Nebraska is the nation's No. 1 state for the use of irrigation to grow crops, according to 2013 census data from USDA, the most recent data. Nearly 40 percent of all Nebraska acreage now employs some form of irrigation—or nearly 16,000 farms. Those crop circles illustrate the most common method for applying that irrigation, a method that some say was itself invented in Nebraska: The center pivot.

A center pivot irrigation system uses a long chain of pipe that typically stretches from a water well or pumping station in the middle of a field to the outermost edges. The pipe carries water from the pump system housed in the field's center out to those borders. Irrigation water pumped through the piping delivers a continuous spray out of nozzles spaced along the pipe.

That pipe is carried above the crop on a series of wheel chassis that hold it above the ground. Those wheels are then driven so that the entire pipe system walks slowly around the center pump like the hands of a clock. It typically takes a day or more for the entire pipe to make a complete circle, watering all areas of the field reached evenly.

Because the circular arrangement of the center pivot can't reach into the corners of the fields, and because crops won't grow or aren't planted in the areas that aren't reached by the irrigation, the system results in fields that appear as circles from high above. In addition, some fields are also divided into only portions of a circle, depending on how and when crops are planted and the irrigation frequency, sometimes giving fields the appearance of pie wedges.

Like large parts of the Midwest, Nebraska's irrigation wells are fed in part by the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast reservoir of underground water that covers parts of eight states. Lying from 100 to 350 feet beneath the surface of the soil, the aquifer was formed by the giant rivers and streams that formed the landscape during the last ice age ending thousands of years ago. Because the aquifer must be "recharged" by surface water that slowly seeps down through soil, some have expressed concern that practices like irrigation are withdrawing water faster than it can be replenished.

Center-pivot irrigation is a water-conservation tool designed during the 1950s by Colorado farmer Frank Zybach, who along with friend and Columbus, Neb., car dealer A. E. Trowbridge and Robert Daugherty, the young owner of a fledgling Nebraska farm equipment company called Valley Manufacturing, developed and marketed what would come to be called "the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the replacement of draft animals by the tractor." Because, unlike traditional water sprinklers that shoot water into the air, center pivots drop water directly onto crops, less of it is lost to evaporation and more goes to water growing plants.

Today's center pivot systems are often computer-controlled, high-tech engineering solutions that distibute water evenly across 1-mile diameter fields of rolling hills, and have even begun to solve the problem of empty field corners by adding robotic arms capable of swinging out to reach into those corners.

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Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

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