Water & Wisdom – 40 Years of Irrigating the Bootheel with Ellot Raffety
On a landscape where the touch of human hands is evident around every corner, it’s hard to pinpoint any one individual’s contributions to progress. Yet amongst the levees, ditches and canals that drained the swamps of southeast Missouri and created one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions, one contribution does rise above.
While seemingly ubiquitous now, center-pivot irrigation systems were once a novelty in the Bootheel. That is, until the spring of 1977, when Ellot Raffety, along with business partner Fred Ferrell, launched Mid-Valley Irrigation Inc. and brought this technology to the region. Today, the company based in Charleston, Mo., has installed roughly 2,400 pivot systems, placing nearly 300,000 acres under irrigation in southeast Missouri, southern Illinois and western Kentucky.
“There were a few pivots here at the time, but they were the old water-drive pivots,” Raffety says. “Most all irrigation then was flood irrigation. You had to level the ground. Where I farmed near the river, the ground had a lot of slews and ridges. You had to move a lot of dirt to get it level enough to move water. It really wasn’t a viable alternative.”
The pair saw opportunity and began researching ways to bring electrically driven pivots to the Bootheel. They decided to become a dealer for Valmont Industries Inc., makers of Valley irrigation systems.
“When we first started, we had to teach people about pivots, explain how they work,” Raffety says. “We had to sell the concept, and then we could sell the equipment.”
Putting their money where their mouths were, Raffety and Ferrell bought systems and installed them on their own farms. “We wanted to show folks that we had confidence in the product we were selling,” Raffety adds.
Such an investment might have been too steep for some, but Valmont offered a lease program that would allow a producer to finance a system and amortize it just like the crop they were growing, spreading out the cost over 10 years. This made the pivots more attractive.
“We could show guys that they only needed to grow a certain number of extra bushels to make the payment, and it was reasonable figure,” Raffety says. “The differences between irrigated and non-irrigated can be dramatic. We’ve seen cornfields where the corners didn’t produce more than 30 bushels but inside the pivot, the crop would yield 180 to 200 bushels.”
When they began, Raffety and Ferrell assumed pivot purchasers would be those farming lighter, sandier soils because having water on demand would guarantee production. They quickly realized farmers with heavier soils also benefited as irrigation allowed those fields to reach their top potential as well. It also made double-cropping soybean behind wheat more reliable as producers would ensure themselves a bean crop, even if Mother Nature turned off the tap.
“There wasn’t a lot of research out there, so we did our best to gather information and keep records,” Raffety says. “We actually gave the MU Delta Center a pivot so they could do irrigation research.”
Over the course of 40 years, the center-pivot irrigation industry has made steady improvements. Systems went from using high pressure to low pressure, dramatically reducing horsepower requirements and fuel consumption. Drops and improved nozzles have been developed to lower evaporation rates and enhance water use efficiency.
“We’ve had a lot of changes but not a lot of change,” Raffety says. “Changes have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary.”
He says over the years, his company has conducted experiments for Valmont as they looked for other ways that pivots could benefit producers. Mid-Valley ran trials using the irrigation system to deliver fertilizer and herbicide, which became common practice. Other ideas didn’t fare as well.
“We actually planted wheat through a system,” Raffety says, shaking his head at the notion. “It worked, but the fact that you had to move the equipment from one pivot to the next, it was too expensive.”
While a pivot irrigation system can’t go far, it can go where it’s not supposed to go. Over the years, Raffety says he’s seen spans run into trees and fences, even once out on the highway. The biggest problem is people leaving equipment in the field.
“The gear ratios [on a pivot] are like 50-to-1, so it’ll climb right up in the back of a pickup truck,” he says. “They’ve got a lot of torque and can practically go up a wall!”
Not only are the systems powerful, but they also are durable. The first system Raffety installed in 1977 is still in the field today.
“We have good water here. It doesn’t attack the metal,” he explains. “Our water does have iron in it. You see these systems up and down the road that will be turned all red. You think they’re old rusty systems, but scrape off that rust and it’s nice shiny galvanized underneath.”
Reflecting back on 40 years in the industry, Raffety is proud of the economic development that Mid-Valley brought to the Bootheel region. By no means is the company alone in selling pivot irrigation systems today, but he says he believes timely service helps set them apart.
“Pivots have become a commodity, just another piece of farm equipment,” Raffety says. “So we make sure we take care of our customers and make sure our pivots work for them all season long.”
While Raffety and Ferrell are still involved, longtime manager Jerry Whittington oversees Mid-Valley’s day-to-day operations.
Raffety and his wife, Karen, celebrated 54 years of marriage in 2017. They have three sons — Hunter, Bill and Tom — and seven grandchildren. Both Hunter and Tom still live in Mississippi County and work the farm with their father, growing corn, soybean and wheat. Bill lives in Los Angeles and works in the agriculture division of a cargo inspection company.
“It’s been fun,” Raffety says of the irrigation business. “We really believed in the product. Both me and Fred had farms, so we didn’t need to take any money out of the irrigation business. We just nurtured it and watched it and the crops under it grow.”