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Rice in Arkansas (4)



*By Holly Hope

(Cont’d)

Leveling

Since rice is a semiaquatic plant it required maintenance in a flooded environment during all or part of the growing season in order to curtail competition from weeds and to provide higher yields. Early irrigation of rice involved laying off fields without consideration of land contours or the need for level land, a practice that resulted in saturated valleys that were incapable of being drained. Land used for rice growth was more efficient if it was level with a gentle slope leading to drainage channels. Leveling the land did not become a standard procedure in rice planting until the late 1920s. The process would involve eradication of ridges and filling in sloughs and hollows so that the tracts would drain quicker during the growing season and at harvest time, and seedbed preparation could begin earlier. It also allowed the maintenance of a uniform depth of water in levees, which would help control weeds. It was easier to construct straight levees on graded fields, which diminished the total of productive rice land lost since hilly tracts required more levees in closer proximity to each other than those on level land and it reduced costs of tillage and harvest.

Floats, developed in the late 1920s were the first implements used in land leveling. The earliest floats were composed of two eight-or ten-inch wooden runners and cross pieces or blades, fashioned from two-by-six boards. A later, more efficient float patented by a Stuttgart rice farmer consisted of alternating diagonal blades, which provided a lateral transfer of the soil and a forward movement at the same time.

Pumping

Most flooding in the Prairie would be provided by pumping from rivers, lakes, bayous and wells. In 1915 half of the Arkansas rice acreage would be irrigated by pumps from wells, which were owned by individual farmers. Irrigation companies or other individuals supplied the rest with water from large canals through a rental arrangement with rice farmers. Large pumping plants would commonly consist of one or sometimes more, pumps driven by engines fueled with petroleum, gasoline or kerosene. Pumps in the Prairie would provide 7½ gallons or 1 cubic foot of water per minute for each acre under irrigation.

Canals that transported water to the fields were constructed from two parallel levees spaced about fifty to two hundred feet apart. Pumping the water from these canals could be the most expensive venture in a rice field as there were costs that varied depending on the height to which the water was pumped, the amount of water pumped and the cost of petroleum and wages for plant attendants. Farmers would save money by forming a large co-operative plant that could service several fields. Wells could allow irrigation in areas that were not considered cultivable to rice by retrieving water from underground sand and gravel beds. The cost of increased lift made pumping from wells a little more expensive except in periods of heavy rainfall, so farmers introduced alternative methods of irrigation to offset the costs of pumping. Cost-saving techniques included planting rice in low areas, allowing rainwater to pour in from elevated land; collecting rainwater in reservoirs on high ground for controlled release; or redirecting water from dammed streams or ditches to their fields. Other ploys would involve extending levees outside of the field to deflect water and planting rice on characteristically marshy land.

Building levees

Field levees were the central apparatus in the regulation of water depth in the field. The required uniform depth in each paddy was dependent on the proper location of levees and their quality of construction. By 1915 surveyors or farmers knowledgeable in the use of an engineer’s level would be employed in determining the exact location of levees to prevent uneven flooding and added expense. A rodman in the field would make certain that the placement of levees would be on lines of equal elevation and he would be followed through the field by a team and plow in order to mark the position of the levee at the moment it was located. It was recommended that a gradual curve, rather than short turns or crooked furrows be followed. Levees made sharp turns only on the occasion of extremely uneven land and only in certain circumstances did they intersect.

The dense, wet soil of the Grand Prairie in winter provided for compact construction, diminishing seepage and prevention of levee wash-out, so this was thought to be the best season to build new field levees and to re-construct old ones. The procedure began with the plowing of an eight-inch trench of exposed clay flanked by deposited dirt approximately five feet from the periphery of the field. Earth would be cast back into the trench and horses would be ridden on the levee to puddle it.

Three or four furrows to either side of this trench would be plowed and a push, also known as a crowder, would be employed to pile the dirt from the furrows into the proper height and width. A push, pulled by a team of eight mules, came in several sizes for varied levee height and was composed of two boards on edge in the form of an “A” with graduated horizontal braces in the center. The longer side of the push would slide along the furrow while the short side would “crowd” the earth to the levee. An interchangeable lever or guide stick appended to the long side of the push and supported on the shorter, “earth” side at a horizontal angle controlled the amount of earth moved and stabilized the push. Around World War I a steel ditching implement called the Martin Ditcher began to be used for levee building and by 1928 levee pullers that would pull, rather than push, earth to the levee came into use.

The sides of the levees were constructed with gentle slopes in order to allow farm equipment and teams to traverse them. Every year the levees were destroyed during preparation and seeding procedures but the marks on the land remained to indicate their proper location and they could be re-shaped with graders. The irrigation process, which began between June 10th and 20th, would commence at the main water source by pumping to lateral canals, then to field ditches and ultimately into the paddy. In the early twentieth century, water flow to successively lower levees was controlled by the use of a board or sack set into the dirt. Sometimes a space was simply cut into the levee; however, this was not efficient in the case of an unexpected rain storm. Improved wooden gates equipped with sliding shutters were developed later for regulation of water flow. By the mid-twentieth century metal levee gates or levee control boxes containing adjustable panels were in use.

(to be cont'd)






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Photo: Rice harvesting in Stuttgart, Arkansas.


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