Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stirring the Water

Rich Stearns
1936 - 1996

During the summer, my brother Rich would come in from milking and say, "Well, I've got to go stir the water around." He "stirred the water," in the morning and in the evening, on two farms that were ten miles apart. I can only imagine the miles that he walked in a day, often carrying heavy canvas dams, before he invested in a four-wheeler. Eventually, the canvas dams were replaced with thick plastic ones, but the chore still required thigh-high, size 12, irrigation boots and a sharp shovel. The shovel was the most important tool: it was necessary to make the cuts from the ditch to the furrow and to place the dam in the ditch, but it also served as a defensive aid. Rich brought several rattles home from the snakes he had killed while irrigating on the north farm.

Flood irrigation is a lot of work: the dam has to be placed in the ditch and weighted down with dirt/mud, the cuts have to be opened to the rows in the field, and before pulling the dam and moving it further down the ditch water the next section of the field, you must see if the water has reached the end of the field.

Rich surveyed the fields in the spring to determine the best place for the ditches, and then pulled the ditches with a "V"-shaped ditcher pulled behind a tractor. Mid- summer he would sometimes re-pull the ditches to aid the flow of water. At harvest, some of the ditches were filled in to allow easier access to the fields.

The two farms totaled approximately 500 acres and produced alfalfa, oats, and corn for the dairy herd.

Rosa and Rich Stearns in a field of ripening oats

I remember bringing the stacks of new canvas dams home from town and the smell that permeated the car. The dams were originally a dark green canvas; later, a dark tan. The plastic dams were bright orange and thankfully did not smell.

I remember Rich's irrigation boots outside the porch door and his damp socks beside them and Mom complaining that the boots were always in the way.

When Rich was late getting home for supper or in time to start milking, he would say, "I would have been home sooner, but. . ." Often, the "but" was because he had stopped to talk to a neighbor on the side of the road.

If I close my eyes, I can see Rich walking out to the field with his shovel propped on his shoulder on his way to "stir the water around."


  1. I never really thought about how they handled irrigation. I've seen those plastic "dams" in irrigation ditches (we have a few farms in this area) but never realized what all was involved. What a great narrative!

  2. A nice memory of your brother. Thanks for sharing it. No one works harder for a living than a farmer. Loved the photos!

  3. What a loving insight into farming in another part of our country. Thank you for sharing that with us.

  4. That was very interesting...never thought about it before. What a huge amount of work though....

  5. Hard work! What a sweet tribute to your brother.

  6. Love the pictures and memories. Isn't it funny how the memory of smells is so sharp??

  7. Thanks for that description, Nancy. I was born in Chicago, but then Dad bought a farm in Illinois but we had 'regular' rainwater and when I moved to dry western Nebraska, and I always wondered how it all worked. Good description.

  8. Lots of memories. And to think he did the farming in between "stirring the water" and also milking cows twice a day. No days off. Give the farmers a high five for all they do.

  9. What a beautiful memory of a hard-working brother. Farmers are the backbone of this country. Thank you for letting us see a slice of America through your eyes!

  10. How interesting! It's amazing how hard people worked to give us what we have today!

  11. What a great memory! Thanks for sharing.

  12. What a wonderful remembrance and one full of information as well. I hope you make of book of these for your family descendants!


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