Gold is beautiful, but the smart money buys aluminum. When you drape yourself with bling, you have to worry about the thugs in the alley that wait to yank the studs from your nose or twist the rings off your fingers. Aluminum has no glamour, and is perceived to be the metal of choice for the meek, shuffling street people that eke a living out of scavenging cans. But aluminum, like gold, holds its value through tough times. When I bought my supply of thirty-foot long, three inch diameter aluminum irrigation pipes ten years ago I spent $18 per joint. Every once in a while someone drives a tractor over a section of pipe by mistake and crushes it, and when that happens I can sell the damaged sprinkler pipe by the pound to recyclers and recoup my initial investment. In fact, the price of aluminum has gone up so much that if I wanted to buy new irrigation pipe I’d have to pay close to fifty dollars per joint. I can’t afford that, so I rent half the pipe I use for around twenty dollars a piece. Buy gold and you own gold. Buy aluminum sprinkler pipes to rent out and you’ve got a gold mine.
I’ve got a friend in the irrigation pipe business. When farms go bankrupt or farmers retire there’s always a farm sale. My friend goes to the auctions with his trailer and buys old sprinkler pipe, which he then retrofits and rents out to people like me. He’s crabby these days, because he finds himself bidding against guys in loafers, guys that can’t tell the male end of a pipe from the female end and aren’t curious to find out. They’re metal traders, not farmers. They know it takes immense amounts of electricity to turn raw bauxite ore into finished aluminum, and they know that energy costs are only going to rise. When it comes to prices, what goes up doesn’t have to come down. Pretty soon there may be so much quick money to be made scrapping aluminum that nobody’s going to bother going through all the work of repairing damaged sprinklers, replacing worn rubber gaskets, and hauling trailer loads of pipe to far-flung farmers like me.
Then there’s theft. It’s easy to mug a woman. But we farmers take comfort that most thieves are too lazy to drag thirty-foot lengths of pipe out of muddy fields in the night and haul them off. If the economy gets worse and hard working people turn to crime that could change. Already farmers have to keep an eye out for roaming thieves that steal the smaller, easily transported aluminum irrigation parts like gate valves, elbows, tees, and end plugs. Even worse, growers with fields and orchards near busy roads are discovering that their pumps and electric panels have been stripped of copper wire during the night. The farmer goes out at dawn and flips the switch and waits to hear the whir of a motor and the gurgle of water, but nothing happens: you can hear the birds chirp. Copper theft is an especially maddening crime. A thief may sell the stolen wire to an unscrupulous recycler for a few hundred dollars, but for the lack of water caused by a vandalized pump a farmer may lose a crop worth tens of thousands of dollars, to say nothing of the cost of replacing the pump. Not all fences make good neighbors.
To make my inventory of aluminum sprinkler pipes reach as far as possible I use them as little as possible. Once our fields have been planted out and the plants are established we put as many of our crops on drip tape as possible. Squash, cucumbers, basil, tomatoes, eggplant, sunchokes and peppers are all raised on drip. On my home ranch, where I have to cope with very limited water supplies, I raise perennial herbs, like rosemary, thyme, oregano, savory, nepitella, and sorrel using only drip tape. And we frequently cultivate the rows of herbs with our little tractor. As water evaporates from the earth it forms capillary pathways through the soil. Cultivation acts to conserve water by stirring up the surface of the soil and shattering these little capillaries that that would otherwise help wick subsoil moisture into the atmosphere. This is a very basic “dry-farm” practice.
In the Bolsa region along the upper reaches of the Pajaro River where I grow my row crops, there is no shortage of ground water. Nor is the Bolsa aquifer contaminated with salt water intrusion the way the Pajaro Valley is near the ocean, where farmers and town dwellers have overdrawn the aquifer for years. But if I have no urgency to conserve water right now, learning how to economize on irrigation use is always a good idea. It takes energy to pump water, and energy costs are going up fast. It takes workers to move the pipes around the field, and the cost of labor is going up. And with more people in California every day, and more people competing to use and abuse our state’s limited water resources, the time may be drawing near when urban voters strip agriculture of its traditional priority hold on water.
A gallon of water on a farm is worth a lot more that a gallon of water that goes down a toilet, washes a car, or keeps a lawn green, because a farm’s water creates the food and jobs that keep the towns humming. A lot of urban consumers don’t see things that way because the connections between popular culture and agriculture are a mystery to them. Maybe I should stop listening to talk radio, but every day I hear people say that farmers should pay more to their workers, and, by the way, food is too expensive. Everyday I hear people say that it’s a hardship for cities to conserve water, and the farmers waste it anyhow, and by the way, food is too expensive. Dams are evil, so let the rivers run free, and by the way, food is too expensive, especially wild salmon. Eat locally, except for cheese, because dairies stink, and they should be a long way from town so nobody has to smell them, and by the way, milk is too expensive. Only wine seems exempt from criticism, and the day may come when Two Buck Chuck is cheaper than the water it took to raise the grapes in the first place. For now, as far as the public is concerned, food, like water, just seems to flow, albeit with more turbulence every day. The political wars over water are at hand as different interests wrestle in a public arena over who gets priority for diminishing water resources. The old saw is evergreen; “a crisp Chardonnay is for drinking, and water is for fighting,” As we farmers make the pitch that we should have a priority claim on water we need to demonstrate by our conservative practices that we merit the supply we demand. Gold is golden, and so is aluminum, but water is life. It’ll be a real crime if we farmers have all the precious aluminum pipes we need, but not enough water to fill them.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin || Photo above is of leeks at High Ground Organics, there’s a peek at an aluminum pipe with a joint on the end.