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254  Making Irrigation Work for a Family Farm Phil and Linda Tooms on the Moscow Road Irrigation is as old as civilization itself. It is one of humanity’s great historical innovations. The great cities and cultures of the ancient Near East, of India and China, and of Mexico and Peru depended upon the development of this sophisticated technological complex of lifts and pumps, canals and laterals, workforces and schedules, and sensitivity to land, water, and climate. It could even be said that cities were originally created to make irrigation work. On the High Plains today, on a less grand scale, mechanized and powered irrigation simply helps to guarantee an abundance of food in a difficult, even hostile, environment . Equally important, in the eyes of many, irrigation also assures the security of a modern version of the historic independent farming lifestyle that Americans cherish in both myth and reality. The irrigation farming life of Phil and Linda Tooms in southwestern Kansas needed land, water, capital, equipment, and management skill on a larger scale than the traditional image of the independent family farm presents. Yet it was not agribusiness. The Toomses represented mechanized large-field farming defined by skill in using soil and water, environmental sensitivity to the nurturing of their land, family ownership, a sense of belonging to a specific place, and loyalty to rural values. They stood midway between the industrial Gigot family and the more traditional Oklahoma Trescotts. The Toomses also did not participate in the small but growing organic-sustainability farming that the Land Institute represented; they felt it was naively idealistic about hard labor, per-acre yields, and markets. Instead, the Toomses sought to be the best “mainstream” or “conventional” farmers they could be, since they believed it is still the better road to longterm success. Because they lived in semiarid country, the irrigation making irrigation work for a family farm 255 practices of the Toomses, probably more than any other factor, determined whether they could perpetuate and even enhance a satisfying and productive farm life. Their experience can be explored as a quest for sustainable agricultural development that emphasizes environmental management, site-specific activity, local decision making, and moderate prosperity for civilized well-being. Phil and Linda Tooms lived about a half mile north of the graded dirt Moscow Road and five miles west of the main road, U.S. 83, which runs between Sublette to the north and Liberal to the south. The drive up to their house was pleasant, their spacious and comfortable ranch house tree-shaded, with a green lawn in front sloping toward a southlooking open vista of gently rolling, buff-colored fields and grassland. Their back yard contained a shaded stone patio and wrought-iron furniture , a garden protected by bushes and trees from the plains sun and wind, and more shade trees before opening up to the flat, dusty plains landscape—“the floor of the sky.” The wind blows and the songbirds sing in the oasis they created since 1954 from a small cabin—“a little old dinky building unchanged since 1912”—whose old frame they encased in the modern suburban-style home. Inside were the amenities of middle American consumer society: color tv and vcr in a comfortable family living room, kitchen with convenient appliances, an attached three-car garage. The home office, with its computer, was the center of farm management operations. Unlike many suburban homes, however, the Toomses’ house contained hundreds of books on shelves, not for show, but obviously thumbed and read. A history enthusiast, Phil Tooms sometimes spoke to local groups about southwestern Kansas history. Next to the house on the west side were the buildings of a modern working farm, no barn but large, plain metal sheds for tractors, field implements, trucks, and storage. Here Phil exercised his jack-ofall -trades know-how. The yard did not have the eastern humidlands barn smell of straw, manure, and animals, but instead was a mélange of painted steel implements, aluminum machinery housings smelling of oiled gears, engines of all sorts, and a red gas tank on struts. The farmyard, buildings, and equipment were all strangely silent; this was not a factory, despite the machinery. It was taken elsewhere, onto the 256 making irrigation work for a family farm fields, to do its work. This farmyard was more a parking lot and repair shop than the center of any constant flurry of activity, as it might have been in Pennsylvania...


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