As a teenager, during the summer it was my job to “change the water.” The thing is, as a family we knew very little about irrigation systems. My dad had grown up in northern Idaho, not farming. My mom had the most practical experience, having helped at her uncle’s farm, but her childhood recollections were foggy at best. I started “moving water” with limited knowledge and almost no skill.

Louder erica
Freelance Writer
Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

Every morning, and most evenings, I would drag my little sister, Elise, out to the farm with me. We soon established a system. I would turn off the line that needed to be moved, and Elise would run to the end of the line and unplug the stopper. While we waited for the pipe to drain, I would move the opener to the next riser and clamp it on. Some of the opener’s clamps were so tight I had to squat and leverage myself in order to get it to clamp shut. We would then start moving the pipe. We had end riser, hook n’ latch pipe. Elise would be at the end with the latch, and I would take the end with the sprinkler. Together we would carry the pipe to the next riser. Elise would hold the end of the pipe next to the opener, lift the latch and say “push.” I’d slide the pipe in place, and she would lower the pipe to the ground, hook the latch, and yell “pull.” I’d pull on the end of the pipe tightening the latch in place. We’d then repeat the process.

However, the fields were on a bit of a hill and we had a heck of a time trying to keep our lines upright. No one had told us that we should turn the water on just a little as we set up the line to help keep them upright. Inevitably, a pipe would fall over and drag the other pipes down with it, and we would have to latch them all back into place, one by one, as we weren’t strong enough to push the whole line back in all at once.

Once the lines were upright and in place, my sister would stick the stopper into the last pipe, and I would run up to the opener. Again, these openers were a little tight so it would take all my strength to turn it open and let the water flow. The first summer I didn’t realize I should let the water into the pipes slowly. I would crank that opener just as far open as it would go. Either the line would quickly pressurize and sprinklers would start spinning, or it would attempt to pressurize before blowing out the stopper. If the later happened, I would crank the opener back down and let the pipe drain and hope the line wouldn’t tip over in the process.

When we would finally get the lines to pressurize, I’d watch for any plugged heads. Almost always, there would be a few heads only dribbling water. Most of the time I could take piece of wire and push it into the head of the sprinkler and loosen the bit of rock that plugged it. If this failed, the whole head was taken off and I removed whatever was causing the blockage. This would require the water to get turned off, again hoping the line wouldn’t fall over, a wrench procured, the head taken off and the debris cleaned out. Once, at the first of the irrigation season, I had to clean an entire snake out. It was nasty, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor creature – death by pressurized water is a gruesome way to go.


Eventually the pipe would be set, the water turned on, and the whole system pressurized. I’d drive the four-wheeler back to the shop, kick off my irrigation boots and itch my new mosquito bites. Our county didn’t have a mosquito abatement program and our farm backed up to the river. If you were at the farm near dusk or dawn, you bathed in mosquito repellent. You wore long sleeve shirts, long pants and a hat or else you’d quite literally be eaten alive.

Despite all of this, moving pipe came at quite the advantage for a high school athlete. I remember my cousin remarking at a family reunion how fit I looked. I shrugged it off. I heard it as rather a back-handed compliment – what did she mean I looked “fit?” My uncle, who grown up on a farm himself but raised his children in the city, explained that it was the pipe moving that did it. He said, “Muscles grow better on a farm than they ever do in the weight room.” I think he knew this from experience himself.

Towards the end of the summer, right before I left for college, I took my boyfriend out to the farm with me. My dad needed me to move a couple pipes before we headed out for the evening. I threw my boyfriend a pair of irrigation boots and we trudged out to the farm. I wouldn’t have considered this boyfriend a “city boy” as we lived in a town of 1,500 people, but this pipe moving experience convinced me he was most assuredly was a “town kid.”

We got out of the pickup and he earnestly began helping. Turns out, my 10-year-old brother was twice as helpful. I sent my boyfriend on an errand to get a new gasket in the shop. I looked up to realize he was walking. I hollered at him to take the four-wheeler. I saw him start up the engine and unsuccessfully try to get the four-wheeler in gear. Somewhat to his credit, this four-wheeler had a manual transmission. It was the kind you shifted by lifting up on a pedal on the floorboard with your foot, and to reverse it you pulled back on one of the handlebar breaks and pushed that same pedal down with your toe. As I watched my boyfriend rev the engine over and over again, I realized then and there despite our mutual affection for each other, there was not a long-term future in our relationship. I think as he saw me watching him somewhat embarrassed and a little ashamed, he came to the same conclusion. There we were, two young kids with agriculture standing between us.  end mark

PHOTO: Moving handlines may seem like a no-brainer, but it actually takes some coordination, practice and patience to get it right. Photo by Phillip Warren.

Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.