Courtesy National Resources Conservation Services.

Due to the nature of their business, drought hurts farmers more than just about any other group of people in the nation. And as the summer of 2002 played out, an unrelenting dry spell has engulfed about half of the United States, with the West, the Mid Atlantic states, and portions of the Midwest and the South being hit the hardest. Many crops - and those who grow them - have suffered, to say the least. However, to combat the uncertainty of rainfall and to increase yields, a growing number of farmers are irrigating their fields - and that's translating into business for two hard-working drilling companies in the Midwest that we spoke with this past summer.

Irrigation Keeps Growing in Show Me State

"In our business here in southern Missouri, what we're noticing is farmers going to more and more irrigation," says Rick Smelser, manager at Irrigation Central in Sikeston, Mo. "I think the estimate is 50-percent irrigated in the boothill of Missouri, so there's certainly more room for growth."

Irrigation Central, formerly known as Clayton Farm Services Inc., is a 16-person business that acts as a distributor, installer and servicing agent for agricultural and industrial irrigation. The company has two rigs and the capability to drill 2- to 16-inch wells in both steel and PVC using a reverse rotary system with gravel pack. Smelser says that in practice, though, "We drill mostly 10-, 12- and 16-inch wells to irrigate corn, cotton, soybeans, grain, sorghum and rice for precision-graded ground or Lindsay Zimmatic center pivots. We install turbines, centrifugals and submersible pumps. In addition to our well drilling rigs, we also have a 60-foot crane truck for turbine installation and other types of repair jobs."

Smelser says that farmers have been irrigating in the area since the late 1950s and early 1960s. "They started out with probably 8-inch wells," he explains, "and a lot of those wells are getting older and going out of service, and we're putting down a lot of 12- and 16-inch wells."

While weather does have an influence on the amount of work Smelser's company does, his clients are not as reactionary as one may expect. "We had a real rainy spring here, but that didn't slow the farmers down making plans for irrigation because they know that sooner or later that it's going to get dry," he relates. "When it gets hot and dry, though, we see our in-store traffic pick up. Weather does have an effect on our market, but it's pretty busy even when it's wet because farmers know that they're going to have to irrigate anyway."

It seems that in Irrigation Central's territory, the decision to begin irrigating is influenced as much by banks as by the climate. "Because of the farm economy, irrigation is a paying proposition," Smelser explains. "We think lending institutions are encouraging farmers to irrigate either through center pivots or grating the ground or some form of irrigation, and they are shying away from ground that's not irrigated because the prices are so close that they have to irrigate to have the yield."

"But even though irrigation has been around a long time, I still think that it's a growing business, partly because of the farm economy and the lending institutions desiring irrigation, and also the amount of land that is not irrigated yet across the region, and also the amount of stuff that is getting older and getting replaced," he comments. "There are other well drillers who I've talked to and asked, 'Do you think there are that many wells left out there?' and every one of them out there has said, 'Yes,' because of those reasons."

Watering the Cornhusker State

Irrigation drilling is big business in Nebraska, as well. According to Mike Whitesel of Sargent Irrigation Co. in Broken Bow, "In the majority of the state of Nebraska, if you don't irrigate, you don't raise too much, especially in a year like this one."

Sargent Irrigation has grown by leaps and bounds since Mike's father, Larry Whitesel, took full ownership of the business with his friend Wayne Caps in 1954. It now has eight locations scattered across Nebraska and 180 employees, which includes the individuals who work for Sargent Pipe Co., the company's manufacturing division. At the Sargent Pipe facility, the company manufactures and warehouses turbine pumps, pump parts, well casing, drilling rigs, service rigs and rig support equipment. "We build all of our own stuff and repair our own stuff. Dad found out years ago that a lot of times, if you want something done and done right and built the way you want it built, you have to do it yourself," Whitesel proudly reports.

Seventy-five percent to 80 percent of Sargent's work is agricultural, and Whitesel has found that the weather definitely affects the number of requests his company receives for wells. "The weather is huge in our business - if it's dry, we're busy," he says. "When I was a branch manager up in Neleigh, Neb., we had one year when the economy was poor and it was wet, and we drilled seven wells out of that office all year long. It's been dry in Nebraska. The eastern half has had more moisture than the western half, but we can hardly get all the work done."

Although there is some crop variation from one end of the state to the other, "the majority of the wells that we drill for the ag sector, they're going on pivots, and the pivots are being used to raise mostly corn or beans," Whitesel notes. "Most of the wells are anywhere from a 28- to a 32-inch borehole. Across the company, 30-inch would probably be the norm. And we set mostly 16-inch casing. We have different parts of the state that we set steel casing, and there are some parts of the state that we set plastic casing."

Irrigation Technology Progresses

To keep up with the increase in irrigation, the industry's technology is evolving and advancing. Both drilling companies note improvements, as well as shifts to different products, in recent years.

Whitesel, for example, says that his company is using a lot more plastic casing these days. "We sold very little plastic casing in the late 1980s, early 1990s," he says. "I think there's been a big improvement in the plastic casing. It's rounder, it's straighter, it has greater strength than it used to it. Years ago, we didn't set plastic casing because you couldn't set it in the ground and get it gravel packed because it would collapse on you. They've definitely solved that problem."

Smelser notes that most of the technology changes he sees in his Missouri market are helping farmers irrigate more land, more efficiently, in less time. "We're seeing it moving from centrifugal pumps and motors more and more to the larger wells with turbines in them. That's just like with everything else in farming - smaller to larger - to produce more volume of water, to water more acres in a smaller period of time because the labor's not out there," he explains.

He says that his company also is noticing "more farmers going to surge valves, which help to control water use and efficiency. Our university extension service works with growers to establish their program. We also see more use of poly pipe, which reduce friction loss, gives the ability to water in a shorter amount of time, reduces engine speeds and saves fuel."

However, even though there has been clear progress in irrigation technology, Whitesel says it's virtually useless if the farmer and the well driller cannot hire decent employees. "We can talk about technology, and we can talk about improvements, but I can say that the biggest problem that our industry and any industry in Nebraska is going to have is labor," he says. "It's hard finding good people who want to work. We still have a good work ethic, there are just not as many people as there used to be. We're trying to mechanize it as much as possible, but it still takes manpower, whether it's men or women."