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Idaho Farmers Discover HDPE

Conservation-minded farmers in the State of Idaho are using HDPE pipelines to replace water wasting open-ditch irrigation

Drew L. Wilson

Fairfield Idaho, 2005 – Brian Shields pulls his truck to the side of a rural Idaho highway to fire up his Pocket PC, check his GPS, and talk on his headset phone. He is stroking his Fu Manchu while finalizing another pipe deal and looks more like one of the Hells Angels than a technically advanced traveling sales rep. Shields hangs up, sits and stares over the steering wheel at his big-sky office. Rows of irrigation sprinklers cover green alfalfa fields sprawl to the distant Sawtooth Mountains that punctuating the horizon. “Nature didn’t plan for this country to be so green,” he says, indicating that only 8 to 12 inches of rain falls annually and not even that much during the last seven years of record drought. “But smart farmers have always figured out a way to make this land produce; I’m just glad that polyethylene pipe is becoming a part of the equation.”

Shields is talking about a 19,000-foot high density polyethylene (HDPE) pipeline that will replace an open irrigation ditch for a conservation-minded farmer. The pipeline will not only conserve precious water, it is an energy saver, and the federal government is so impressed with the project that it is paying for half of the construction cost.

In the mid to late 1800’s, the sagebrush country of Southern Idaho held great potential for homesteaders. The soil was rich but lacked one crucial element to produce crops – water. What was worse, a huge volume of water flowed unchecked down Idaho’s rivers through the arid lands and out of the state. As early as the 1850’s, farm entrepreneurs hand-dug crude ditches to bring river water to small farms where they grew vegetables and other crops to sell to miners flocking to the gold rush bonanza in the high county. This system has grown into thousands of miles of canals, laterals and irrigation ditches that are responsible for a $5.3 billion agriculture economy. What’s more, many feel ditch irrigation is the most significant activity in the history of Idaho and consider it the key that truly unlocked the West.

The use of polyethylene pipe to replace open ditches is the latest evolution in Idaho’s rich history of crop irrigation. The benefits of having a pipeline instead of an open ditch can be staggering. For instance, water is traditionally pulled from the ditches with pumps. The fuel expense for pumps alone can take a huge bite out of the bottom line. Primo Farms, the 6,000-acre family farming operation that is installing the pipeline, uses 80,000 to 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year in pumps that bring water to its crops. The pipeline will be gravity fed which will eliminate the need for pumps. This will save close to $200,000 in overhead for the farm and is the kind of energy conservation that intrigued the government.

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