Decatur County’s first self-propelled irrigation system remembered 50 years later

Published 5:18 pm Friday, June 29, 2018

A piece of farming history came to Decatur County the summer of 1968.

Robert D. Humphrey was a man who loved to farm. He loved his cows. He loved his pigs. He loved his row crops. And he loved his family.

“Our parents were awesome,” said Don Humphrey, son of Robert and Janie Humphrey. “As far as farming, that’s all daddy wanted to do.”

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Don was standing with his dad on his farm in North Decatur County on a hot day in June. They were together for a photo with The Post-Searchlight. The story was Humphrey’s new self-propelled irrigation pivot, the first of its kind in Decatur County.

Marion, Don’s brother, was 17 at the time. He remembers seeing all the pieces for the center pivot and pipe scattered in the field as workers from the Valley irrigation company assembled it.

“I remember they had it scattered all out there, and we would go out there and watch them put it together,” said Marion. “When they had a grand opening out here, people came from all around just to see it.”

Before center pivot irrigation was invented in 1954, farmers might have used a hose-pull traveler irrigation system. Most would just farm dry land and hope for rain when their crops needed a sprinkle. But the self-propelled irrigation system changed everything.

Once they saw what Humphrey had installed, other farmers began purchasing theirs. Don said Marvin Rentz, grandfather of Rentz Irrigation owner Jim Rentz, was the next to install one.

Rentz sells and services Valley pivots through his company now. He looked at the one Humphrey installed 50 years ago to irrigate his 224 acres and smiled.

A lot has changed since then.

Robert Humphrey, right, and his son Don inspect the 12-inch well and 170 HP diesel generating unit that pump the water and maintain pressure for the irrigation system. This photo and an accompanying story were originally published in the June 27, 1968, edition of The Post-Searchlight.

Humphrey’s irrigation pivot had 17 towers, each equipped with wheels geared to a water pressure propulsion system. Rentz said systems these days use eight towers for that amount of land. Approximately 100 pounds of pressure was maintained in the water line back then. Today, Rentz said 50 is more common. The 170 H.P diesel generating unit that pumped the water has been replaced by modern units that only use 100 H.P.

All those numbers have gone down because of efficiency, Rentz said.

“In the late 60s to mid 70s is when you saw a lot of structural changes,” said Rentz. “Since then the structural changes aren’t significant, but the technology has changed.”

Modern irrigation systems have a 90 percent efficiency rate, meaning that much of the water is making it down to the crop. On hot days where some water is bound to evaporate, it’s good to know your row crops are getting hit. Back in 1968, Rentz isn’t sure they were accounting for that type of measurable.

A number that has slowly risen over the decades is the size of the fields farmers use.

“You didn’t have 200 acre fields,” said Rentz. “You had 40 or 50 acre fields.”

Farming more land is all thanks to expanses in technology, of course. Electricity has made jobs more automatic and efficient. Farmers can use their cellphones and GPS guidance to ensure their crops are getting watered properly.

Humphrey might have enjoyed that kind of technology 50 years ago, but there is no doubt he was a pioneer. He also operated an air-conditioned pig pin, was Georgia Farmer of the Year in 1968, the Baldwin Master Farmer award recipient in 1968 and one of the founding board members of First Port City Bank.

Don and Marion have been retired from farming for around 15 years. They kept the Valley irrigation system sign as a memento of their father’s work.