At age 92, retired farmer Howard Wuertz, Casa Grande, Ariz. proudly smiles and boasts about his career in water conservation as a drip irrigation inventor, innovator, and pitchman.
Over his six decades plus in row crop farming and maximizing water use, Wuertz has shared his drip irrigation craft with thousands of people worldwide. His travel resume on drip includes trips to China and Australia; plus Washington, DC where he served on a water conservation task force for President Ronald Reagan. Farmers have travelled to his farm to witness his farm water conservation from as far away as Russia and Spain.
Along the way, Wuertz became an excellent farmer producing high yield and quality crops with less water. He’s made a deep solid footprint in making agriculture even more sustainable.
While Wuertz has been a ‘go-to’ man on drip and appreciates the kudos, he is quick to give credit where it’s due – the University of Arizona (U of A) – where as a student he soaked up information on agricultural technology, chemistry, soil science, and irrigation before graduating in 1951.
This educational knowledge, plus his own creativity, have propelled the drip innovation movement. He earned five U.S. patents on modified tillage equipment designed to help make drip irrigation work better.
Former U of A Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Gene Sanders, now retired, bestowed on Wuertz an honorary Doctoral degree, plus the moniker – Dr. Drip.
Howard was born in 1925 in Revillo, S.D. about 20 miles from the Minnesota border where his parents farmed. In 1929, the family traded their operation for a 160-acre farm at Coolidge, Ariz., located about 50 miles south of Phoenix.
Then his country called. After high school, Wuertz joined the United States Army Air Corps in 1944 which Wikipedia says was the nation’s military aviation arm from 1926 to 1941 (today called the Air Force). Stationed on the second largest island in the world at New Guinea, he flew 39 missions during World War II aboard the B-24 aircraft nicknamed the ‘flying boxcar’ – dodging a plethora of bullets along the way.
After his military service, Wuertz tapped G.I. Bill benefits and enrolled at the U of A. After earning his degree, Wuertz had zero school debt, and had banked $10,000 after college, “enough for a down payment on a house and funds to buy used farm equipment.”
Meanwhile, wedding bells tolled. Howard and his sweetheart Jewell joined hands and hearts in 1949, a year when the average cost of a new house was $7,450 and the average annual wage was under $3,000 annually.
They have four children – Greg and David who farm today, Sarah, and Carol. The family patriarch and matriarch have nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Jumping into cotton
In 1951, Howard leased a farm from his father Fred, and after several years young Wuertz grew his first Acala cotton crop under traditional furrow irrigation. The year was memorable as Wuertz bought a newfangled cotton picker which picked one row at a time, much better than the 30 hired hands needed to handpick the cotton.
“It was a very successful year,” Wuertz recalled, as he shared his life story with Western Farm Press in late October at his Coolidge home.
Several years later, the U.S. government told farmers they grew too much cotton so farmers were forced to diversify their operations. Wuertz added barley, wheat, and grain sorghum to his crop mix. Alfalfa was added in 1962.
Acala cotton yields back then were pretty good for Wuertz – about 2.5 bales per acre. Wuertz experimented with Pima a few years later.
His first cotton crops were carted about eight miles to the 11-Mile Corner Gin at Casa Grande. A few years later, Wuertz, Carl McFarland, and other local growers decided to build a gin in the Coolidge area. The River Co-Op Gin opened its doors in 1958.
Reflecting on his 1950s cotton crops, Wuertz noted, “Hand-thinning cotton was a hard job but we had excellent varieties.” He was unafraid of mechanized farm machines due to his U of A background. His college classes trained him in the latest irrigation technology, including how to design pumps and wells.
“I was exposed to important irrigation knowledge which helped me put water in the ditch and water every row using siphon tubes.”
In his early cotton years, Wuertz averaged 3 acre feet of water per acre per crop and watered every two weeks.
Later, Wuertz purchased the first cotton module builder in Arizona. The module builder allowed Wuertz to harvest cotton at peak quality instead of a winter-long harvest. He says modularized cotton made it possible for the gin to run for six months and become more profitable.
In 1956, Wuertz’s brother Vern who farmed at Blythe, Calif. called Howard, insisting the brothers start marketing their lint through the Calcot Cooperative at Bakersfield, Calif. Howard and Vern lobbied other farmers, and with a combined 12,000 cotton bales they signed with Calcot.
This was the beginning of a family affair for the Wuertz family and Calcot. Howard served as an early board member at the cotton co-op. Today, Howard’s son Greg is the co-op’s chair, and until a year or two ago Greg’s son Bobby was a Calcot employee.
In 1983, Howard and Jewell’s farm was renamed Sundance Farms. Why Sundance? He laughed, acknowledging, “The farm’s major input was sunshine.”
First dip in drip
Wuertz saw a good farming future with drip irrigation, an idea he bought onto from an irrigation company salesman. Wuertz’s first attempt with drip was in a sugarbeet crop destined for the Spreckles processing plant near Chandler.
Said Wuertz, “With drip, sugarbeet yields increased to about 25 tons per acre, 25 percent more than beets grown under traditional furrow irrigation.” However, Wuertz said the surface drip irrigation needed improvements.
“It was laborious as hell to put down and take up the drip lines – harder to put the lines down than take back up.”
In 1980, a friend told Wuertz that underground drip irrigation, a.k.a. subsurface drip or SDI would work better. So Wuertz conducted three experiments on five acres each with SDI placing plastic tubing two inches under the soil line; six inches under the soil in another planting; and 10 inches underground in the third test plot.
“With the two- and six-inch buried tape, we tore up the drip lines” but saved water, Wuertz recalls. The most successful depth was 10-inch buried drip below the rows.
In 1980, Wuertz’s cotton crop under SDI yielded about four bales per acre. He was hooked. Every year forward, Wuertz converted more ground on the family’s 3,200 acre farm to SDI. By 1992, the majority of the farm had SDI.
Even with Wuertz’s SDI success, the system still had flaws tillage wise. In 1982, he created the company AZ Drip Systems where he invented five specialized implements to improve tillage with SDI. All the implements were patented by the United States U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The systems included the Sundance root puller to better cut up cotton plant roots growing up to three feet under the soil line. The tractor-pulled implement had dual 28-inch, slightly-curved concave disks driven by a 3-by-3 inch cleat and a tension bolt. It was a speedy unit which effectively cut or pulled up roots at a speed up to 10 miles per hour.
Another Wuertz invention was the Sundance modified disk which allowed growers to disk, rip, and list a field in a single pass with good incorporation of crop debris while maintaining the original row quality.
Yet another invention – the Sundance tape injector - precisely buried dripper lines from two to 10 inches deep with variations at less than an inch. The Sundance tape extractor invention ripped on either side of the tape with hydraulics to wind up spent tape.
“These implements made it possible to permatize an SDI installation and use it year after year,” the inventor said. “Subsurface drip irrigation came to life because of what I did at Sundance Farms. I put the drip line deep enough where I could till the soil above it and to the sides, and use the system for different crops.”
His advancements, he says, encouraged drip irrigation companies to improve their drip systems.
Eight years ago, this writer wrote an article available online at https://tinyurl.com/y7syu7br which detailed the Wuertz family’s successful use of SDI in alfalfa. Today, the family’s successes are sweet reminders about an ever changing agricultural industry. Son David now manages Sundance Farms and the AZ Drip Systems company – http://azdripsystems.com/. Greg manages his own operation, Fasttrack Farms, at Coolidge.
Looking back, “Our accomplishments make me feel good.” Farmers around the world now use the Wuertz systems and equipment to save water and increase productivity.
Wuertz sat back in his chair, smiled, and stared - a man at peace with his life and his litany of accomplishments.