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The Education of a New Farmer: Part IV

by Raven OKeefe

Remember high school math, the "zero/sum model"? Oregon's water supply seems to be based wholly on that model. Either we're up to our knees in raging torrents and lakes that used to be pastures, or we¹re trying to coax a few sprinkles out of our nearly-dried up irrigation ditch.

You may have heard on the news about all of the forest fires raging in Oregon currently (none of them too near us, so far ... knock wood). It has been very hot for far too long, and at some arcanely preordained date the seemingly endless downpours punched their time clock and checked out, and never a drop has fallen since. Zero/sum. Nothing or everything. Now Oregon is doing a magical trick that absolutely astounds me: it is managing to be simultaneously tinder-dry on the ground but humid as a sauna in the air. How can that be? One of life's little mysteries, and/or one of the cruel jokes farms play on the people who try to run them.

The Nile, our irrigation ditch, was constantly overflowing, flooding pastures and lurking ever nearer the barn and house all last winter and spring as the rain fell... and fell... and fell some more. We had sheep stranded in the far pasture more than once, unable to cross the Nile on the pathetic little plank bridge that spanned it because the pathetic little bridge was either washed away or under several feet of raging water. That led more than once to a sorry sight, two drowned-rat looking humans and some soggy dogs trying to herd a bunch of wet, crabby sheep down the highway and through the front gate into the driveway and thence back out to a slightly drier pasture. And who can forget those jolly days (and nights!) spent out in the freezing rain, frantically digging drainage trenches with pick and shovel, water sloshing up over our wellies and drizzling down the necks of our macks? In those dark times, it seemed the rain would never end and we would never be dry.

Now, however, it's as though never a drop had fallen. We worked and sweated and cursed and tried everything from logic to voodoo, and finally got our creaky irrigation pump working. Hooray! Dragged huge unwieldy pipes, most of which were either bent, broken, or some odd size that didn't fit any of the others, all across the first field, then lugged the ancient water cannon across the Nile "bridge" to connect to them. In the beastly heat (high 90s, low 100s) we dragged pipe, connected and reconnected the wretched things. The dogs of course thought this was great fun, having us out there trudging around in the field all day. They refused to go lie in the shade (they are, after all Border Collies!), so I had to make up a game called Doggies in Denial, in which I would throw sticks and rocks and even dried-up sheep turds into whatever little pools were left of the once-mighty Nile and the dogs would leap madly into the water, which kept them somewhat cool.

After fixing countless leaks and replacing terrible pipe sections with some that were merely bad, at last we got it going! Water water everywhere, spraying creakily but steadily out over our parched field!

The next morning we turned the pump back on, watching with great smug satisfaction as the water sprayed, and drove into town to run a few errands. When we came back... no water! Had the pump gone on strike again? NO, the Nile had DRIED UP! That seemingly endless supply of water was reduced to a mere trickle. Gradually during the day a little more water came our way, after everyone upstream had drunk their fill, but eventually there wasn't even enough to play Doggies in Denial any longer, it would have been Doggies in de Mud!

Evidently, though, the same thing was happening to everyone from us on down the line, and enough hell was raised that the Powers That Be decided to open the gates and let more water through each day. Now our daily routine includes twice a day going out to the pasture and disconnecting a dozen or twenty big old sections of pipe with sprinkler heads, dragging them a bit farther down the field, and reconnecting them so another bit of pasture can have a drink.

Will I be able to remember this, during the winter and spring to come, when once again we're battling the Nile to keep it from flooding us out of house and barn? Stay tuned!

-- Raven OKeefe

Scio OR, July 2002