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Woe and opportunity: Tales of historic drought

Published: Friday, July 3 2015 8:37 p.m. MDT

In this Aug. 3, 2012 photo, Tony Frost, of Frost Farms, lines up a hose into a 1,000-gallon water tank in Tallula, Ill., as he fills it to take back to the farm for his cattle. After months of drought, the central Illinois creeks and ponds that the 300 cows and calves drink from on the farm are dry or close to it. Frost has to buy and haul water, about 4,000 gallons a day, split up in four trips to different pastures. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman) (Associated Press) In this Aug. 3, 2012 photo, Tony Frost, of Frost Farms, lines up a hose into a 1,000-gallon water tank in Tallula, Ill., as he fills it to take back to the farm for his cattle. After months of drought, the central Illinois creeks and ponds that the 300 cows and calves drink from on the farm are dry or close to it. Frost has to buy and haul water, about 4,000 gallons a day, split up in four trips to different pastures. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman) (Associated Press)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The United States is in the midst of the worst drought in decades, and the dry weather and soaring temperatures are taking a toll on people living and working in Ohio, west to California and Texas, north to the Dakotas. Farmers have watched their corn wither and their cattle go hungry. Homeowners have seen their lawns turn brown and gardens wilt. Communities in the Midwest that rarely experience water shortages have enacted restrictions, and businesses are looking for ways to stay afloat as sales fall off. Here are a few of their stories:

WATER FOR QUARTERS

The creeks and ponds that Cimeron Frost's 300 cows and calves drink from in central Illinois are almost dry.

So each day, he takes rolls of quarters to what amounts to water vending machines in nearby towns. He drops in the coins, collects the water in metal and plastic tanks and tows it on trailers to his pastures around the town of Tallula. He hauls 4,000 gallons a day in four separate trips, dumping or piping the water into big, galvanized-steel troughs for his herd to drink.

Tony Frost, of Frost Farms, surveys last week a pond in the cattle pasture that serves as the water source for his cattle that has nearly dried up in Tallula, Ill. (Associated Press) Tony Frost, of Frost Farms, surveys last week a pond in the cattle pasture that serves as the water source for his cattle that has nearly dried up in Tallula, Ill. (Associated Press)

Even at 40 to 50 gallons per quarter, it adds up.

"It takes a little over two rolls of quarters a day, plus probably $40 in gasoline a day, to water all our cows in all our locations," Frost, 65, said. At $10 a roll, that's about 60 bucks a day, or $420 a week, and he's been hauling every day since mid-June.

He estimates he has spent about $2,700 so far. But he worries more about what could lie ahead.

"If we don't have a wet fall and a wet spring, we could be in trouble for another year," Frost said.

— David Mercer in Champaign, Ill.

BUY NOW, PLANT LATER

Jeff Gatewood has never seen a summer this bad in 36 years at Allisonville Nursery in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers.

Farmer Randy Pettinghill examines an ear of undersize corn in a field near Plumerville, Ark., earlier this month. (Associated Press) Farmer Randy Pettinghill examines an ear of undersize corn in a field near Plumerville, Ark., earlier this month. (Associated Press)

Indianapolis had its hottest July on record, with temperatures topping 90 degrees on 28 days, and less than an inch of rain fell in June and July.

"We've now gone where nobody's gone before. Hot, dry, hot, dry, record-setting all the time," Gatewood said.

With business down 20 percent to 30 percent because of the weather, he quit ordering new plants in June and cut hours and staff. Then, he decided to get creative.

The nursery held a "heat stroke" sale in late July, offering customers a chance to buy plants and pick them up later, once cooler temperatures arrive and local watering bans are lifted. That brought people in and helped business some, he said.

"We're seeing a pent-up demand like a dam wanting to break. I think once we see cooler temperatures in the lower 80s, get a little rain shower — that's going to help," he said.

In this Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 photo, pear trees get emergency watering at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Ill. Many of the garden's 2.5 million plants have required extra watering during the summer's triple-digit heat. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) (Associated Press) In this Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 photo, pear trees get emergency watering at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Ill. Many of the garden's 2.5 million plants have required extra watering during the summer's triple-digit heat. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) (Associated Press)

The nursery has clustered plants in shaded areas to protect them. Gatewood said hydrangeas are especially vulnerable.

"Even in the shade, when it's 95 or 100, they hate it," he said.

— Jeni O'Malley in Indianapolis

RESOURCE RATIONING

Randy Pettinghill buys water from the city of Morrilton for his farm in the Arkansas River Valley, but this year, the city put a cap on what he could have. It turns on the spigot every third night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and Pettinghill collects as much as he can in lagoons on his property in Arkansas' Conway County.

He tries to ration the water, but with the temperature regularly over 100 degrees, he's losing a lot to evaporation.

In this Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 photo, a sugar maple tree shows signs of scorching at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Ill.  Many of the garden's 2.5 million plants have required extra watering during the summer's triple-digit heat.  (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) (Associated Press) In this Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 photo, a sugar maple tree shows signs of scorching at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Ill. Many of the garden's 2.5 million plants have required extra watering during the summer's triple-digit heat. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) (Associated Press)

He has wells on his property, too. He spent $25,000 to have the second one drilled in July because the first was producing half its normal amount of water. He connected the two, and they still aren't producing enough to keep his corn and soybeans irrigated. He left about two-fifths of his 1,700 acres unplanted this year, and he's been pumping water onto the rest, spending $22,000 a month for fuel.

"If I run out of water, they'll be dead in two weeks," he said.

— Charles Bartels in Little Rock, Ark.

CASHING IN

For some, the drought will likely be a money-maker — especially those who fall outside the dry-weather zone.

One of those farmers is Harlan Anderson. The rainfall on his 800-acre farm near Cokato in southern Minnesota has been normal, maybe a bit more. That means he'll have alfalfa, corn and soybeans to sell when others don't, and he'll benefit from rising prices.

In this Aug. 1, 2012 photo, a cloud of dust follows a combine driven by farmer Randy Pettinghill as he harvests corn near Plumerville, Ark. Pettinghill buys water from the city of Morrilton for his farm in the Arkansas River Valley, but this year, the city put a cap on what he could have. It turns on the spigot every third night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) (Associated Press) In this Aug. 1, 2012 photo, a cloud of dust follows a combine driven by farmer Randy Pettinghill as he harvests corn near Plumerville, Ark. Pettinghill buys water from the city of Morrilton for his farm in the Arkansas River Valley, but this year, the city put a cap on what he could have. It turns on the spigot every third night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) (Associated Press)

But demonstrating what he described as his Scandinavian sense of reserve, Anderson said he feels a little guilty when talking about how he expects to profit from the misfortune of other farmers in the Upper Midwest.

"My projection is that our gross profits for the year will double," Anderson said. "The drought has certainly been good to me. Don't say that too loud."

He's started getting frequent calls in recent weeks from livestock farmers around the country. Some usually grow their own feed, while others buy it from farmers like Anderson. All are starting to worry about their supply.

"Looking ahead, they're trying to decide if there's a sufficient supply of feed, can they afford it and are they going to keep feeding their dairy cow or their horse — or are they going to shoot them?" Anderson said.

— Patrick Condon in Minneapolis

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