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Posted at 12:25 PM ET, 11/28/2010

Greening the nation's agricultural heartland

By Matt Schudel
Emma Brown

If you've ever looked out a window from 30,000 feet and wondered about the green circles on the ground below, you can find your answer in Robert B. Daugherty of Omaha, Nebraska, whose obituary appears today.

Daugherty was the first person to engage in large-scale manufacturing of center-pivot irrigation systems, which had a deep impact on farming in the semi-arid Midwest and West -- and forever altered the rural landscape we see from the windows of airplanes.

Daugherty was the chief executive of a Nebraska company originally called Valley Manufacturing (now Valmont Industries) for the Nebraska town where Daugherty got his start in business. He originally built grain elevators -- not the large storage buildings for grain but a now-obsolete farm implement that transported grain up a metal chute by means of blades attached to a system of chains and gears. Daugherty also built something called a "clodbuster," which broke up plowed earth in smaller pieces to make it easier for farmers to work the fields.

Most of the time when we write obituaries, we have to become experts for a day on subjects we don't necessarily know intimately. But in the case of Robert Daugherty, I have more than a passing interest. The headquarters of Daugherty's business was in Omaha, but the manufacturing took place -- and still does -- in Valley, Nebraska, a small town about 20 miles west of Omaha. I grew up in Valley County, Nebraska, which is about 200 miles west of Omaha.

For people living on farms, a center pivot meant that they no longer had to move pipe. Before the center pivot came into vogue, fields were irrigated by linking together hundreds of lengths of steel or aluminum pipe, which carried water along the ground. While growing up on the farm, I spent hundreds of hours of my youth moving irrigation pipe. Few parts of farmwork are more laborious than lifting an 8-inch-wide pipe from of a trailer and putting it in place on the ground, one after another for half a mile or more. When we finished watering one field, we would have to pick up the pipe and move it to another.

Once in a while, two pipes would come loose, and water would shoot up from the opening like a geyser. Because the water pressure was so great, it was almost impossible to put them back together without shutting off the well. It wasn't particularly dangerous work, but you had to wear leather gloves, particularly when moving the thinner 4-inch pipe, which had sharp metal edges. It was better exercise than any kind of weightlifting workout in a gym.

I remember when center pivots started to become popular in Nebraska, thanks to Daugherty's manufacturing ingenuity. Our family held out for a long time, not wanting to invest the tens of thousands of dollars for a center-pivot system and, I think, not wanting to disrupt the traditional rectangular order of farmland.

Years later, however, when my brother took over most of the field work, he installed a center pivot, which waters his crops. But we still have the old-fashioned irrigation pipe, and each summer it has to be moved by hand from one field to the next to keep the corn green and growing tall.

By Matt Schudel  | November 28, 2010; 12:25 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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