Irrigation: Ancient Sumer to the Modern West

Reflections on Chapter 2, Farming in Ancient Times, “Farm; A Multimodal Reader”

While reading Farming in Ancient Times, I was struck by the similarities to other culture’ techniques. I was fascinated by hearing about how the Summarian farmers prepared their fields for cultivation. They used, “dikes, ditches, and mounds,” to flood the fields with life-giving water. 

This was intriguing to me because many farming cultures throughout time and at various locations around the world have utilized a similar system. For instance the acequia system of New Mexican is a community-wide irrigation system that uses dikes, ditches and mounds to feed water from the streams to the various land holdings. The acequias were brought to the New World by the Spanish when they colonized what is now called New Mexico. The Spanish had originally learned how to the acequia system of irrigation from the Moore’s of Northern Africa who had immigrated to Spain. The Moore’s may have historical roots to the original Summarians. In New Mexico the acequia watering system is still used today.

Variations of ditch irrigation systems can be found found all over the world. Even in Utah, many communities use ditch and flood irrigation to water fields and home landscapes. In Moab, for instance, the Moab Irrigation Company was established before the incorporation of the Town of Moab. In the high desert, you must have your water systems before almost anything else. The process for this irrigation system is that water is gravity diverted from Mill Creek, the local creek that runs through town, the water flows through the roadside gutters until the water reaches the fields or yards of people who hold water shares. The water then flows through openings in the curb and runs into ditches where the water is distributed in various ways to water the land.

I know this because earlier this spring, my friends and I began a garden project with utilizes a Moab Irrigation water share. Our project, the CommuniTea Garden, is a public water harvesting demonstration site, park, and meeting space. Every five days, our water share is available and as it flows down the gutter, we open up a little door in the curb and allow the water to rush into our garden, where indented, rock-lined swale systems use gravity to distribute the water slowly through the garden. The water that percolates outward, through capillary action in the soil, nourishes the many grasses, herbs, fruit trees, and shrubs planted in the garden, as well as slowly returns the irrigation water back to Mill Creek via the soil and is returned to the watershed cleaned of any residue it may have picked up during the water’s trip through the streets.

When we water the garden, people always stop to watch the process of channeling water through the garden. Watching the water slowly creep through the rock-lined ditches until it reaches capacity and begins its overflow to the next yard over, is a visually beautiful process and touches on something ancient and ingrained in us. To interact with water, soil, and plant life in a positive way, is what our species has been doing for millennia. When reading the ancient Sumerian text describing their watering and cultivation system, I felt a new connection to the land workers of the past. These time tested irrigation practices have served humans for thousands of years, and when done correctly, can help distribute water resources in a way that extends the possibilities of cultivation to greater regions.

Their gods, are analogous to the gods that have been invoked in many cultures as humans gave gratitude for the opportunity to cultivate and to pray to fate, nature, God, that their seeds and labor would reap a bountiful harvest. Agriculture is dependent on compatible environmental conditions what are out of the hands of humans. In ancient times, and still today, our agriculture depends on the correct conditions to see the crops through to harvest. There is so much that the earth provides to us for free, a concept called ecosystem services. These services are based in the vast interconnections that provide life. The soil microbes, the properties of water, the exact position of the earth from the sun, our human ability to cultivate, work and reason, the miracle of a seeds, all of these things, and more are services but are also called miracles. For these things, I believe, we should all give thanks. And especially for the farmers, land workers and cultivators, whose life is dependents on the daily services of nature, there are many reasons to praise and invoke whichever deity gives the structure to the miracle associated with food production.


Glimpses of my Agrarian Heritage: The Woodley and Boroughs’ side.

As I sat in an Indianan barn-turned-B&B with my maternal grandparents, my aunt, and cousin, I had the perfect setting to ask about our agrarian ancestry, a history with roots deep in the black prairie soil. Our first ancestors came to Iowa after the Homestead Act of 1862, when Iowa was wild country, granting land to settlers willing to work hard on the 160 acres¹. In this post, I will recall some of the anecdotes recalled to me by my maternal grandparents and how this opportunity through the Homestead Act gave a lifestyle and identity to my family for generations.

My Grandpa Woodley, who is in his mid-80s today, has always lived in North Central Iowa, in the Hansel area. My grandfather’s great grandfather John came to Iowa from Wisconsin under the Homestead act to Dumont, near Hansel. My Great-great-great-grandfather John and his brothers felled the first tree and built a log house with no windows. John turned up the prairie sod, dug ditches to drain the marshes, and cultivated the earth for crops.  This land, having been recently appropriated from the native people with their villages  just miles away, was wild country. The native women would come trade with the farm wives.

John’s wife’s name was Emily and together they had a son named Albert. Albert was born in December in that same house with no windows. Albert lived on that land and he raised livestock. During the world war, he was called to work on ropes but later came back to the farm where he enjoyed again milking his Red Poll cows by hand. Albert then lived and farmed through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. Luckily, his land stayed put. Many farms were sold to banks but his wasn’t. On the farm, they had all of their needs provided for.

Albert was my grandpa Warren’s father. Warren was born and raised on that same family land and helped on the farm. As he got older, he was gifted calves from Albert to raise on his own. He recalls the milking process well. They would use whole milk to feed the calves as well as drink that same milk at home. There was a Milking House where the milk would be processed in a separater, skim from cream. Warren said you had to clean the separater every day. The skim was mixed with feed to make slop for the pigs. When walking up on the pigs with their slot, Warren remembers you had to be sneaky or the pigs would run up and nudge you and there would be a mess made. The cream would eventually sold in town but first was taken to the cooling tank which was cooled with water from a wildmill-powered pump. This well went down 120 feet. How did they drill 120 feet down in the early 20th century? Horses would be hooked up to the drink and walk all day in circles to crank the drill down.

My Grandpa Woodley’s dad was the first generation to get a tractor. It held a 8 feet wide disc that plowed the prairie. Grandpa recalls that it was a big job to properly keep horses for a plow and  they were glad when the tractor arrived. Another technology they used was a cultivator to weed the soil after the corn had been planted and two or three more times after that. They were plowing out “morning glories” which we also call bindweed. A mechanical planter was also used. Wires were strung every 40 inches across a field of corn. The machine ran cross ways of the wires and was tripped by the wire which drilled four corn seeds into the mound. You’d be judged on the straightness of your rows so you had to make sure to plant them well! Manure would be spread on the fields for fertilizer

Warren, my grandpa, lived on his family’s 80 acres until adulthood, along with his brother Morris, and both of their wives and families, and their elderly parents. My grandpa Warren is married to my grandma Patty and together they raised 5 children on that farm. However, the farm was granted to Morris, the oldest son in Albert’s will and Warren, Patty, and their brood of children moved to town. My mom was born to Warren and Patty two children later and never got to live the farm life and neither did I.

My Mom’s mom, Patty, also was born and raised in North Central Iowa to a farming family. Her parents Paul and Eileen were living with Eileen’s parents on their farm in the 1930s when Patty was born. They lived on this farm for many years as Patty grew up. They lived near Shell Rock Iowa near bluffs. My great grandma Eileen told the men they could not plow up the mounds near the bluffs because she knew the mounds were indian burial sites. My grandma Patty would play and explore these mounds as a child and knows that they are still intact after all these years, in part thanks to Eileen’s tenacity.


¹Historical Cycles – 1860. Agriculture in the Classroom, 2014, Accessed 11 September, 2016.


GMO’s or Agroecology for Agriculture in a new Climate Regime?

It is true that African and other developing nations will be the hardest hit by climate change. The solution lies not in industrial techniques but in wholistic solutions. Wholistic, appropriate techniques and a paradigm shift in how we view growth and progress, are necessary for truly addressing the root causes of disparity, climate change and agriculture.

Africa holds a rich history of agriculture including bioregionally appropriate farming methods, seed saving and cultivation and other traditional practices that are adapted to their culture and geography.  However, genetic engineering promoted by large-scale agribusiness is a threat to the food sovereignty of developing nations. Luckily, there are ample available and active solutions.

There are many solutions to drought which exist through innovative practices such as agroecology (Links to an external site.) which integrates the culture of a region with appropriate solutions that lead to sustainability. Simple solutions such as building soil health through increasing organic matter and mulching has been proved to be more effective than gmo crops and expensive technology. (ACB (Links to an external site.))

An excellent organization called African Center for Biodiversity  (Links to an external site.)has been working diligently on this topic of African food justice and warns that the WEMA program is a false solution. They have recently filed a suit against WEMA as many countries in African have bans on the introduction of genetic engineering

A few poignant quotes that I found on the topic are stated below:

Abdallah Mkindi of the Tanzania Biodiversity Alliance (TABIO) “The real solution to prepare for climate change is to support smallholder producers to sustain and increase agricultural diversity and resilience, do away with harmful chemicals and place smallholders at the centre of control over their resources and decision-making,” (ACB (Links to an external site.)).

Agostinho Bento, a member of La Via Campesina Africa: “the solution to hunger and climate change is food and seed sovereignty, but WEMA is rolling out the red carpet for agribusiness, which profits from creating farmer dependency on their risky products. We reject WEMA and Monsanto’s bogus drought tolerant GM maize and demand food sovereignty in our countries” (ACB (Links to an external site.)).

Packet of information on the topic: (Links to an external site.)


 (Links to an external site.)

  • Agroecology Home. Agroecology Home. n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2016.
  • Mayet, Mariam. “African Civil Society Slams Monsanto Junk GM Maize Deal”ACBio. N.p., 21 June 2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2016.
  • Mayet, Mariam. “Appeal Against Monsanto’s Bogus GM Drought Tolerant Maize Highlights Need for Urgent Agriculture Transition.” African Center for Biodiversity. N.p., 17 Dec. 2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2016.

Climate Change and Farming- then and now

Isn’t it interested that farming was what, perhaps, saved people living in the middle east roughly 13,000 years ago when the climate became more dry due to climate change? They adapted to their surroundings and came up with innovative solutions such as cultivating land, sowing and saving seeds, and storing the harvest in granaries. Eventually, this became a society and is what we call the Fertile Crescent which is noted as one of the most successful agricultural regions of its time. If adaptation was so crucial and significant during that era of climate change, I wonder what kind of land management and culture innovations we will come up with to adapt to this era of climate change?

Thoughts from “Guns, Germs, and Steel”

The question of why is there disparity and when did it start is a question that I have asked myself many times and have asked others for their perspectives. I’m happy to find that “Guns, Germs and Steel” has thoroughly investigated the roots of inequality. One theory is that agriculture is one advantage that some groups of people came into. The reasons for adapting agriculture are fascinating. They included climate change which forced human groups into creative solutions, geographic setting and ability to access water and other needed elements, the ability to domesticate livestock and more.


Economics in farming

Economics in farming is a big issue. Many well off farmers have massive plots of land which often is the consolidated mass of what was once many farms supporting many farm families. Between the 1950s and 1970s the number of farms dropped by half and average farm size doubled (Living History (Links to an external site.)). This is for a variety of reasons but international economics played a big role as our world became more globalized and mass production of commodity crops became the goal.

The farms that are generating the most income are the ones taking advantage of economies of scale as well as the subsidies that come with growing commodity crops. These million dollar farms only make up 10% of the nation’s farms so finding an eligible bachelor from one of the 50,000 or so large-scale farms may be a daunting task (CNN Money (Links to an external site.)).

Also, as someone who grew up down wind and down stream from many of these large-scale farms and CAFO’s in the midwest, I have to question if this is the kind of modest, bucolic lifestyle written about in the Farmer’s Wives Magazine of 1922.

The topic of how to make a good living wage on a smaller-scale farm is a great topic to explore. There are more and more resources, grants and forums for people wanting to have the good, simple farm life without going into large-scale farming. There’s got to be a way to have a nice farm lifestyle and eat it too.

Would I let my daughter marry a farmer?

The question posed:

“In January of 1922, the editors of The Farmer’s Wife magazine sponsored a contest asking their readers to write essays answering the question: “If you had a daughter of marriageable age, would you, in the light of your own experience, want her to marry a farmer?” Using their own perspectives and the context of that time period (positioned between the end of World War I and the Stock Market Crash of 1929), more than seven thousand readers responded. Two are available here as examples.”

Farmer’s Wife Magazine Essay – Alabama

Farmer’s Wife Magazine Essay – Ohio


My thoughts:

The Farmer’s Wife Magazine responses give an insight into the culture of farming during the early 1920s. The year 1922 was at the cusp of great changes in American farm life. The Great War had just ended and a postwar recession brought hardship to the farms. The war also introduced many changes based on war technologies  distributed to the public after the war. Farm consolidation was encouraged as monoculture cropping came into priority to produce farm goods for the ever-increasing connectivity of the country and world (Ag in the Classroom (Links to an external site.)).

The era painted in the Farmer’s Wife essays show us a time when farming and farm life was changing drastically. The era of increased technology brought the tractor and pesticides as well as the radio and roadways. In many ways, these times would have been exciting as farm life became more ‘civilized’. It was also the beginning of the era of agriculture that we find ourselves in today, which is highly technological, consolidated, and connected.

When I think about what I would want for my child, I certainly imagine food and animal husbandry as a part of their lives. In a few months, when I have my first child, my partner and I plan to eat from our yard and from the local small farms in our region. When that baby turns into a child, it will begin helping with chores outside including planting the garden, feeding chickens, composting scraps to build soil health, and harvesting our bounty. Whether this child is a boy or a girl, it will be connected to the cycle of life shown through the process of growing food. As this child becomes a young adult, I hope that they will hold onto the values that we will instill and perhaps he or she will also want to grow food, love land, and share the bounty with people. That would be a true success in my mind.

Whether I would let my child marry a farmer: Yes. Additionally, I encourage her to be a farmer herself before she marries and settles down. Female farmers are a growing demographic in this country (WFAN (Links to an external site.)). These female farmer’s hold a piece of the solution to our societies modern day cultural and environmental issues. Many women are involved in sustainable agriculture and the reasons are explored in the many books, websites, and regional organizing groups focused on the rising numbers of female farmers. Some of the benefits seen from female farmers include, “emphasizing personal, economic, and environmental sustainability, creating connections through the food system, and developing networks that emphasize collaboration and peer-to-peer education,” (University of Iowa Press (Links to an external site.)). Women in farming is not just good for the women of the United States. It has also been shown to increase the autonomy, economic livelihood, and improve environmental conditions for women in developing countries as well (IFOAM (Links to an external site.)).