Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

James Brower Sidney, MT

Manager | Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project

 Intake Irrigation District | Savage Irrigation District | Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District #1 (Montana) | Lower Yellowstone Irrigation District #2 (North Dakota) 

Years working in irrigation: 27 

Years as manager: 13 

Number of employees: 17 

Size of service area in acres: 58,000 

Amount of water diverted for irrigation per year in acre-feet: 370,000 

Main crops irrigated: Alfalfa, barley, corn, grass hay, hay, livestock, soybeans, sugar beets, wheat 

Predominant irrigation methods: Flood irrigation, center pivot, sprinkler 

Irrigation Leader: What is the top issue facing your irrigation district today? 

James Brower: The critical failing of aging infrastructure. It is very difficult, regardless of what politicians say, to actually get money to repair aging infrastructure. 

Irrigation Leader: What are your top issues regarding personnel? 

James Brower: Replacing the baby boomers. My best workers are generally over the age of 62, and a lot of them are over 67. They take pride in their work, show up to work on time, and want to do the job well. The majority of employees in their 20s and 30s expect their employers to spoon-feed them. They can get an easier job in an office somewhere, so it’s harder than it used to be to retain younger employees and to get employees to take pride in their work. 

Irrigation Leader: What training do you currently provide your employees? 

James Brower: We do monthly safety meetings, and we talk about safety a lot. Most of the training we do is through our older employees. I encourage on-the-job training. We try to explain why we do things a certain way to younger employees. We also do cross-training: If somebody is normally a shovel hand, we try to train them how to be an operator or a truck driver. 

Irrigation Leader: How much do you spend on training each year? 

James Brower: We probably spend $10,000 a year on sending people to classes. We probably spend another $15,000 in man-hours teaching and cross-training. 

Irrigation Leader: What kind of safety programs do you have in place? 

James Brower: We do monthly safety meetings and have a detailed safety manual. We provide safety equipment and training, but the employees are responsible for using it. We also use a lot of YouTube videos on how to do things and what can happen if you’re not safe. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the most important thing you have learned as a manager? 

James Brower: You’ve got to spend time with your employees, helping them do their jobs. That way you can see from their perspective what might be making their jobs cumbersome or what their safety needs are. You need to establish trust with your employees so they feel like they can tell you about things that concern them or things they have questions about. 

The other thing that’s important is the ability to delegate. You can’t be directly supervising everything when you’ve got 450 miles of canals. If you can’t delegate because you’re the only one who knows how to do something, you need to train others. Otherwise, you suffer burnout. 

We also reward our employees. If they take on more responsibility, they get promoted or earn more money or more time off. If you don’t have money for raises, you need to find other ways to reward them, giving them extra paid time off or letting them leave early. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the top skills needed to be a successful manager? 

James Brower: Being able to communicate with all the different personalities of your employees and customers. You have to go out there to be with your employees or your customers, including by helping them do their work. That way you get a feel for what’s actually happening and can address inefficient or unsafe practices. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the best way to work with a board of directors? 

James Brower: You have to have mutual respect, and you’ve got to establish trust. You have to have honest and clear two-way communication. What the board of directors needs the most is the facts: the costs, the benefits, the risks, and the project life expectancy. Our board is made up of farmers and ranchers, all of whom are experienced water users, but I’ve got to do that cost-benefit analysis so that they can understand the risks, the costs, and the benefits before we move forward. 

James Brower is the manager of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project. He can be contacted at (406) 433‑1306.