By Michael Howell
Every year a contingent of young members of Future Farmers of America, from various school districts in the county, convenes on Lake Como to participate in workshops and a tour of the dam and some of the associated irrigation works, including a visit to one of the end points of all that diversion at a working farm. The field trip is sponsored by the Bitterroot Water Forum.
Future Irrigators of the Bitterroot began in 2011 as part of the BRWF’s effort to increase opportunities for watershed education in the Bitterroot. Since its inaugural year, the field trip has grown from Stevensville as the only participating FFA chapter, to adding Victor, and most recently Corvallis.
“Irrigation and agriculture are so important in this valley, as economic drivers and in making the eastside of the Bitterroot valley habitable,” says Julia Wochos, the Big Sky Watershed Corps member at BRWF. “BRWF wants to make sure that people better understand the vital role irrigation plays in our community.”
The students began the day at Como Dam with an in-depth presentation from Bitter Root Irrigation District Manager John Crowley who manages the overall operation of the dam and the Big Ditch that draws its water out just downstream from the dam. The young students not only got an in depth history of the construction and operation of the dam but also an overview of the history of farming in the valley from the early apple days, to the era of potatoes and beets, to the latest development of vineyards and how they all depend on water in this semi-arid climate.
The kids also got the scoop on soils in the Bitterroot valley from Stacey Pease of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, complete with boxed displays of various soil profiles collected locally. The students learned how irrigation water percolates differently through each soil type, some draining quickly while others hold more water for longer. They also discussed crop requirements for different amounts of water, evapotranspiration rates, and learned how to ‘texture’ soils in order to classify them.
Following the presentations at Lake Como, the group visited the Ward Ditch diversion and learned how farmers, in cooperation with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and other participants, developed a siphon and associated fish screen that allows fish passage up the creek but prevents fish from being taken into the diversion where in all likelihood they may die when the ditch is emptied in the fall. Another much larger fish screen has also been installed on the Republican Ditch.
The field trip ended at Huls Dairy, where Dan Huls provided the FFA members with a tour of his operation, including a discussion of best management practices in irrigation and water conservation. This stop provided the students with a great opportunity to see modern irrigation in practice.
Wes Brown, from Stevensville, said that he could possibly be a future irrigator, since he is one now. His family owns 400 acres and irrigates some of the land with a wheel line. They raise some small grains, hay and Black Angus cattle. Wes said he could end up operating his family’s farm. Or, he could become a pilot, another career interest he finds attractive.
His friend Hunter Rodrick doesn’t live on a farm and doesn’t believe he will ever be an irrigator, but he is interested in irrigation and how it works; after all, he is a Bitterrooter. He too is thinking he might like to become a pilot.
“The Future Irrigators of the Bitterroot field trip is a unique opportunity for students to see and begin to grasp how important water is in our valley,” says Wochos. “Stepping out of the classroom and into the field allows the FFA members to hear from professionals, explore career options, and understand just how important clean, abundant, irrigable water is for our valley.”
Bitter Root Water Forum will lead a similar tour for adults this fall. For more information on BRWF visit the website www.brwaterforum.org.