Like other farmers in the West, Roger Barton must irrigate the alfalfa hay he raises for horse owners. And like many farmers, Barton has to be creative to make ends meet. He has an off-farm job to support his family and is always trying to think of ways to keep his farm costs down.

When diesel costs rose to $4.25 per gallon a couple of years ago, Barton came up with a new, non-diesel-powered way to power his center pivot irrigation system, which creates those crop circles you may have noticed when flying over rural America. (The center pivot also saves lots of water by spreading just the right amount evenly over the land.)

With the help of a Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Barton worked with a pump company and NRCS engineers to design a hydroturbine system that generates electricity to power his pivot irrigation system. CIG-funded projects use innovative technologies and approaches to address natural resources issues.

Irrigation water in his area is delivered from the mountains in a pressurized pipe at about 85 pounds per square inch (psi)—about twice as much as needed. In the past, this caused some damage to Barton’s sprinkler heads.

Now when the water enters his new system it travels through the vanes of the turbine (Fig. 1), causing the turbine to spin and turn a hydraulic pump that pumps hydraulic fluid through gears that turn the wheels, moving the long irrigation boom around the circle. Along the way the water pressure is reduced to about 45 psi, just the right amount to keep it from damaging the sprinkler heads.

“This new system is terrific,” Barton says. “It not only did away with a $3,500 annual fuel bill, but it eliminates emissions from the old motor, avoids storing fuel on the farm and lessens our dependence on foreign sources of oil. I’d say that’s a win-win for everybody.”

NRCS State Engineer Bronson Smart estimates the annual operating cost of the new turbine system to be less than $100.Barton has shared information about his system with neighbors, and his ideas, developed with the USDA grant, have been adopted into the NRCS standard practices list approved for use on other farms participating in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).