“What IS That?”

A few years ago my friend Lois and I went to Switzerland. We stayed in the tiny village of Obfelden (I still managed to get lost there), in an 18th century barn (refurbished) belonging to an Australian woman who taught in an international school near Lucerne. It was great and I want to go back and hope to but…

When we got there, one of the first questions we were asked was, “We looked up Monte Vista on Google. What are those circles?”

Really, they do look like they were made by aliens when you look at the satellite view.

Generally, land is measured in acres, half-acres, sections, and something vague called a “parcel.” I hear that phrase a lot less now than I did when I was a kid. The grownups (in Montana) would say, “That was a nice parcel we had down by the river.” Of course that was confusing but language is too dangerous for children.

So, this morning I looked up parcel as it pertained to land. Maybe (I wondered)Β it’s a legit measurement.

A quarter section is 160 acres (65 ha) and a “quarter-quarter section” is 40 acres (16 ha). In 1832 the smallest area of land that could be acquired was reduced to the 40-acre (16 ha) quarter-quarter section, and this size parcel became entrenched in American mythology. (Wikipedia)

These days when I see farm land advertised, it’s measured in circles. “Working farm, barn, outbuildings, newer house built in 2000, four circles producing.” The circles are made by Center Pivot Irrigation machines which work basically like compasses across the land. It’s an effective and efficient method of water delivery and automatically leaves part of the field fallow which is important for not draining the soil of nutrients. The water “rains” down on the crops. The fields are plowed in whatever way is best for what is growing there — for potatoes there are deep ridges that catch and hold the water taking it to the roots.



Potato field in the San Luis Valley and Center Pivot irrigation


It seems to be a good method for dryland farming. I know that in more rain-rich areas farms are still measured in squares.

The satellite image above is centered just north and west of Monte Vista. The dark, jagged line is Rio Grande and the trees lining it. You can see some square “parcels” in the farms nearer the river — mostly pastures and grassland for grazing in winter, not land under cultivation.

It just looks like home to me.

If you’re curious, here’s some good information.


18 thoughts on ““What IS That?”

  1. Okay. That’s a new one for me. We talk about parcels here, too, but like you did when you were a kid in Montana. We have a “small” parcel (2.5 acres) as opposed to our neighbor who has a “nice parcel” (27 acres) or the farm, which is more like 75 acres. That isn’t a parcel. It’s a farm.

    • I think a “nice” parcel varies from place to place. In Montana it wasn’t only size; it also meant available water for the whole growing season.

  2. I had never heard that expression before for land, but being a Brit I just put everything down to be Americann if I do not notice it. Since I live in an agricultural zone, anything to do with farming interests me, something completely different. Interesting machine you have there for the potatoes.

  3. saw a lot of that pattern when flying back to colorado last week. I was a bit sad to not have fine photography access as there was a fascinating variety of patterns from irrigation, full and partial circles. More subtle due to the late autumn time. A lot less green.

  4. This is home to me also. Amazing to fly over the valley in a little Cessna! I didn’t know there were so many little ponds, etc. The circles amaze me still!

  5. My grandfather had a farm so I knew what a parcel of land was, but I didn’t know what the circles meant. Thanks, I know something new I didn’t before. Love that!

  6. How many times I have wondered about those circles! Thanks for this explanation! It’s always amazing to me how many methods have been developed for the same or similar purpose in the farming world!

  7. If I was a farmer, I would be reeeeally tempted to make a pac-man shape with my circle…

  8. You can see some of that in SoCal.

    In the San Joaquin Valley it is still mostly squares. They have long irrigation systems the width of the narrow side of the parcel that are towed across the land rather than rotated. It may have something to do with the relative cost of the land. If land is in limited supply you can’t afford to “waste” your corners.

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