I often get asked why gardening on the curb is so important. Why is it that I choose to draw the most attention to this sliver of land.
Of course there are a variety of issues at stake; public land uses, arable land uses, co-location of food where its being consumed, climate change, peak oil (and well, peak everything! ps have you heard about peak wheat?), community building, skill sharing ….. the list goes on and on. I know I’m preaching to the choir here but every so often I come across someone who is looking at a similar issue but looks at it through such a different lens, I get goose bumps.
Today, I’m thrilled to share with you one such project. CROPS is a series of still aerial photographs of centre pivot-irrigation crop circles compiled together by Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter in a seemingly endless sequence. it is totally hypnotic. The satellite photographs were taken from US crop fields. I found when I was watching it my eye was studying the colour, pattern, textures and the obvious stark line that draws from the centre to one point around the circular perimeter. But what I couldn’t help but look at is the space around it. Circles do not fit in squares. Look at all that wasted space!
Obviously these overlook corners don’t make up a substantial percentage of a farmer’s available land – approximately 15% of each field is left ‘thirty’.
Lucky in the land of enterprise, Robert Daugherty who bought the 1952 patent for the first centre-pivot irrigation machine and made the technology work at a commercial scale introduce an extendable arm to sit at the end, spreading the swing of the circle to look more like a rounded cornered square.
Here is a quote from his oral history:
Talk to a farmer about his square 160 acre field and we want to put a circle in it, [he says,] “What are we going to do about the corners?” Well, we can’t do anything about the corners.
That was in the beginning. Today we can certainly solve that problem because we have the means of putting an attachment on the end of a typical system. It will swing out and retract as the system goes around so that the corners are covered.
Well, the problem with that is that arm that swings out and all the equipment that goes with it is quite expensive. So, farmers don’t generally buy those unless they are growing valuable crops. And some crops like potatoes, as an example, where you’re talking somewhere between $2- and $3,000 per acre. Then, it makes sense to put on a corner system.
Interestingly, those using the equipment don’t seem to agree that this extra arm addresses the problem satisfactorily. Corner swing arms are expensive, in part because they follow a low-voltage wire that has to be be buried around the entire perimeter of the field, and they are also significantly less reliable. The result is a delicate equation that balances land value, potential yield without irrigation, water availability, and crop prices to determine whether the corners are worth the hassle of a corner swing system or not.
Some farmers have come up with solutions by leasing these corner parcels of land to others to farm or allowing cattle to graze there. Or some, perhaps less creative or more reliant on the crops they are growing ‘circle pack’ their field. Unfortunately it is more the exception than the rule that these innovations do occur…