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50 Years: History of Irrigation Manufacturing

There have been a lot of innovations in agriculture and the potato industry throughout the years. From the first self-powered tractors to today's GPS-guided, air-conditioned behemoths. Potato harvesters, planters, windrowers and climate-controlled storage sheds have all made giant strides in improving the means, quality and yield of the crop.

However, it all comes down to water in agriculture. Without a reliable water source and without an efficient and effective means to get that water to your plants, all the newest equipment and latest innovations won't do you much good come harvest time.The irrigation companies profiled here share a pattern of entrepreneurial development. All are now global, multinational corporations taking the green revolution of irrigation to the far corners of the world.

In Robert Morgan's book, "Water and the Land: A History of American Irrigation," he traces the development of field irrigation, from surface irrigation to the center-pivot systems that dot the landscape today.

Sprinkler irrigation first became a reality at the end of the 19th century, according to Morgan. In 1894, Charles Skinner, a farmer from Troy, Ohio, was issued a patent for a sprinkling system. It came to be known as the "Skinner System."

Nelson Irrigation Co.
In 1906, Lewen Russell Nelson started the Nelson and Morrison Manufacturing Co. in Boulder, Colo. Nelson's first patent was for a coupling device for garden hoses, which he patented in 1904.

The company relocated to Peoria, Ill., and then to Pasadena, Calif., in 1925. It also underwent a couple of name changes, settling on L.R. Nelson Manufacturing Co. in 1921.

In 1971, the company created a subsidiary, Nelson Irrigation Co., to focus on large-scale agricultural irrigation systems. When the company was sold and renamed L.R. Nelson Corp., Bart Nelson, grandson of L.R. Nelson, bought the subsidiary and moved it to Walla Walla, Wash.

Pierce Corp.
In 1931, metal fabricator Ralph H. Pierce of Eugene, Ore., filed a patent application for a rubber gasket design that produced a tight seal connecting portable pipe at moderate pressure. Pierce's patent application states: "My invention relates to appliances for joining the ends of unthreaded pipe. They are commonly used as field joints to take care of the movement due to temperature changes and are especially useful in connection with the laying of lines of welded steel pipe."

R.H. Pierce received his patent on Jan. 30, 1934. Pierce Corp. is now a global corporation, with its headquarters in Junction City, Ore.

Valmont Irrigation
Valmont Irrigation, manufacturer of the Valley brand of irrigation equipment, was founded by Robert Daugherty in 1954. Daugherty pioneered the center-pivot irrigation industry when the first Valley machine was manufactured. He designed and manufactured the machine based on a strong belief in conserving water and increasing crop quality and yields. This invention was the start of the mechanized irrigation industry.

Daugherty, a young ex-Marine, purchased the licensing rights to manufacture the water drive, which eventually became the center pivot, from inventor Frank Zybach in 1953. After the company's engineers spent years perfecting the design, the Valley center pivot revolutionized agriculture, not only in the United States but throughout North America, South America, Europe, Asia Pacific and the Middle East. In 1976, Scientific American named the center pivot "perhaps the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the replacement of draft animals by the tractor."

Valmont Irrigation is a global enterprise, operating seven factories on five continents, and markets Valley products in more than 100 countries.

T-L Irrigation
T-L Irrigation was started in Hastings, Neb., in 1955 by LeRoy Thom and J.G. Love. J.G. Love was Thom's financial partner, but Thom would buy out Love six years after starting the company, and almost 50 years later LeRoy Thom continues to lead the company as president of T-L Irrigation. The company started by selling aluminum pipe and irrigation components.

In 1955, there were three employees: LeRoy, his wife, Jean - who served as secretary and bookkeeper - and Art Neal. Today, the company has about 270 employees.

T-L began testing center-pivot prototypes in 1969, and began selling center-pivot systems in 1970. In 1973, T-L switched to planetary gear box drives, and LeRoy considers the switch to be the key to farmer acceptance of the T-L systems.

It's still a family-run operation. These days, LeRoy works alongside his sons Dave, vice president of sales, and Jim, general manager of plant operations and vice president of finance.

Lindsay/Zimmatic
The year was 1955. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House and the top-rated television show was "I Love Lucy." That was the year Paul Zimmerer started a farm equipment business in Lindsay, Neb.

Zimmerer's initial product was an irrigation towline for rough field terrain.

His sons, Arthur and Bernard, spent the next decade developing and building the company's first mechanical move irrigation system, naming it the Zimmatic.

They erected it on Everett Nathan's farm in Newman Grove, Neb., in 1969. The center-pivot is still in operation.

During the 1970s, they developed the Uni-Knuckle span connector, allowing their center-pivot systems to navigate slopes of up to 30 percent with little structural stress.

In 1974, the Zimmerers sold their business to DeKalb AgResearch.

Today, more than 90,000 Lindsay/Zimmatic systems irrigate over 11 million acres of crops in more than 90 countries. The company has production facilities in Europe, South America and South Africa.

Reinke Manufacturing
Richard Reinke founded Reinke Manufacturing Co. in 1954 in Deshler, Neb. Located near the Kansas state line, Deshler is a small town of under 1,000 residents.

Reinke Manufacturing began building laminated wooden rafters for farm buildings. Eventually, the business grew to include churches, retail facilities, Quonset buildings and other farm structures.

"He always had a love for building things, doing things with his hands," said Russ Reinke, Richard's son and first vice president of the company. "He always felt that no matter the gadget, he could improve it."

Reinke entered the mechanized irrigation field in 1968, when it developed the first reversible electric drive center-pivot. Since then, it has grown to become a multi-national supplier of irrigation equipment supplying the United States, Canada and 25 other countries. Doing all this, while still based in the little town of Deshler.

Photo: An archive photo from Valmont Irrigation of an early center-pivot system.

                                                                                                                          --Bill Schaefer, managing editor

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