The boys from Valley — Frank Zybach

Monday, July 30, 2018
An early model of the Zybach Pivot System.
Fire photos

Note: In a new book (to me), This Blessed Earth, by Todd Genoways, Mr. Genoways tells a bit of the history of the pivot irrigation industry, including the involvement of my Dad, Walter, and I had with the fledgling Valley Irrigation Co. I’d like to say I recognized this as a historical event of worldwide proportions. Unfortunately, I saw it as a way to double our corn yield, nothing more, else I’d have hitched my wagon to that star and become a part of the revolution. Nevertheless, the reference brought back some fond memories for me of those days in the 1950s.

In 2004 Valmont Manufacturing Co. celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the birth of the Pivot Irrigation System. In 1954 Bob Daugherty, President of the Valley Mfg. Co. bought the 1952 patent for the Pivot Irrigation Concept from Frank Zybach and his partner, A.E. Trowbridge, of Columbus, Nebraska. Mr. Daugherty immediately began manufacture of the Valley Irrigation systems at his Valley, Neb., plant.

Frank Zybach, inventor of the pivot irrigation system.

Though Frank Zybach and Mr. Trowbridge were free from the problems of manufacturing irrigation systems after they sold their patent to Bob Daugherty, they were far from idle. They had begun to buy up inexpensive land in the Atkinson, Neb., area, on which they installed pivot irrigation systems, in effect making inexpensive land into high priced irrigated farms.

My dad, Walter, became interested in the self-propelled pivot irrigation systems even before the patent changed hands and he and I had been one of the first buyers of a Valley irrigation system in the Plainview area. At that time there was no Valley dealer in the area, so I became a dealer, buying that first system at dealer’s cost. During this time Frank, Walter, and Mr. Trowbridge became friends. Zybach and Trowbridge began regular stops in Plainview on their way west to check on their properties. The three men would usually go out for lunch, then make a brief stop at Walter’s farm to check on the new irrigation system before they resumed their journey.

One time, when Zybach and Trowbridge stopped, Walter happened to be out of town, so the two came to our house. It was near lunchtime, so my wife, Jean invited the pair to eat with us. It turned out to be a very interesting meal.

There had been a story in the World-Herald about the new concept in irrigation equipment, in which it stated that Frank Zybach had invented Pivot Irrigation, and at one point the article referred to Zybach as a genius. I asked him about that and his invention.

Frank Zybach was very “down to earth — a genuinely nice man, modest and unassuming. He laughed at the term “genius”, and said that he really was just a “lazy farmer.” He said that he never had particularly cared for doing fieldwork. His mind would wander as he rode the tractor and his rows were never as straight as his neighbors.

One day he was plowing a field, on his farm in Eastern Colorado, getting ready to plant a crop, and it suddenly occurred to him that plants grew just as well in crooked rows as they did in straight ones. Building on that thought he decided he would plow his field in circles. He began in the middle of his field, plowed a tight spiral, then put the front wheel of the tractor in the furrow and let go the steering wheel. The tractor continued to pull the plow in expanding spirals, till it ran out of gas. Frank had found a way for the tractor to plow his field without his being there. He was free to do something else.

Frank’s intention had been to plant his field, cultivate it, and eventually harvest the crop in this same way. The other operations had not worked out as well as he had hoped, and he had eventually given up on his idea of “hands off farming.”

Gradually, though, Zybach bridged the idea of circular farming to a pivot irrigation system, which could water a field effectively, even as the other operations of growing a crop were done in the conventional manner.

The early Valley sprinklers were quite complicated. Zybach had designed a long pipe, supported at regular intervals by towers. At each tower were two steel wheels that moved the system. Overhead sprinkler heads watered the field as the machine moved around a central pivot. Some water moving through the pipe was diverted to pistons that drove ratchets that caused the wheels to advance. There were valves regulating the water driving the wheels — the inner wheels barely moving, while the outside wheels covered more ground---everything synchronized to keep the main pipe straight at all times.

As long as everything worked right all was well, and a field could be watered with any amount of water desired, just by regulating the speed at which the system moved around the field. There were, however, glitches that developed, and trip wires caused the system to shut down if the main pipe got out of alignment. A farmer got to be good at making adjustments, and Woody, the servic eman from the Valley factory, made a number of trips to Dad’s farm that first summer.

Those first few years the Valley Pivot Sprinklers endured a lot of ridicule from some segments of the ag industry. People pointed that the systems were too expensive; breakdowns were frequent; the systems got stuck; the wheels tore up the field and destroyed corn plants in their path; the systems could not go up and down hills; they missed the corners of the fields; they wasted water, which drifted in the wind. These drawbacks were legitimate concerns. They were addressed and rectified over the years.

While Mr. Trowbridge was all business and seemed to be in a hurry, Frank Zybach made himself perfectly at home at our place. He liked our 3-year old, Susan, and amused her by doing sleight of hand tricks with a half dollar, picking it out of her ear, then making it disappear, laughing with her as she shrieked in delight. When they left Frank gave Susan the half dollar. “Look, Mommie, this big nickel Mr. Frank gave me.”

Throughout our lunch, Frank talked the pivot irrigation system and the early days, when they began to manufacture the systems. He said that he guessed he’d probably have been content to make a few of the irrigation systems in his shop for his neighbors, but his friend, Mr. Trowbridge, had talked him into a partnership, and together they had formed a small company in Trowbridge’s hometown, Columbus, and they began manufacturing the equipment on a slightly larger scale. But he said that it was very apparent that manufacturing machines, then getting them sold, was a far cry from tinkering in his shop — which is what he loved to do.

It was a fortunate day when Bob Daugherty got wind of what they were doing and approached the two about selling their patent — so that Daugherty could add the manufacture of pivots to his line of farm machinery at Valley Mfg. Co.

Daugherty had served as a Marine Corps Officer during World War II. He brought to Zybach and Trowbridge his vision of selling pivot irrigation systems not only in Nebraska, but across the nation, and even outside the United States. Frank said that they liked Bob/s ideas and his enthusiasm. If he would do even a fraction of the business that he thought was possible they would end up with more money than they had ever imagined. Frank, especially, had never aspired to great wealth, but he liked the idea of being able to tinker in his shop, and not have to worry about putting food on the table.

Our lunch stretched out. Frank seemed to be enjoying himself, but Mr. Trowbridge was getting nervous and several times suggested that they really should be leaving. They needed to get to Atkinson. Reluctantly, Frank picked up his coat, and with goodbyes to Jean, Susan, and me, followed Mr. Trowbridge to the car. Was Frank Zyback really a “Lazy Farmer” or was he a “Genius”? I guess I didn’t know. But he surely had hit upon a good idea. At that time we had no thought that his pivot irrigation system would be the idea that would “revolutionize” the irrigation industry, which it has done in the years since. Jean and I were happy for him — happy that he was going to share in the fruits of his labors. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

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