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Tony Frost surveys a pond in the cattle pasture that serves as the water source for his cattle that has nearly dried up in Tallula, Illinois.
Tony Frost surveys a pond in the cattle pasture that serves as the water source for his cattle that has nearly dried up in Tallula, Illinois.

Perils and unexpected proits of a withering American summer

Loss for most is a gain for a few others across the American farming belt.

CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS // 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 15,000 litres a day in four separate trips, dumping or piping the water into galvanised-steel troughs for his herd to drink.

Even at 150 to 190 litres per quarter, it adds up.

"It takes a little over two rolls of quarters a day, plus probably US$40 [Dh146] in gasoline a day, to water all our cows in all our locations," Mr Frost, 65, said.

At $10 a roll that's about $420 a week, and he's been hauling every day since mid-June.

He estimates that 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."

Buy now, plant later

Jeff Gatewood has never seen a summer this bad in 36 years at Allisonville Nursery in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Indianapolis had its hottest July on record, with temperatures topping 32°C on 28 days, and less than 2.5 centimetres 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," Mr Gatewood said.

With business down 20 per cent to 30 per cent 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, get a little rain shower - that's going to help," he said.

A silver lining

There may be a silver lining to the drought: the so-called "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico is shrinking and the summer has seen fewer tornadoes.

The dead zone is an area of low oxygen in the waters that is a long-standing environmental problem, which experts say is caused by farm pollution running into the Mississippi River and then down to the Gulf of Mexico. But with less rain, there is less run-off.

Nancy Rabalais, a dead zone expert with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, found that the dead zone was the fourth smallest in 80 years of records. It measured only 7,483 square kilometres last month, compared to a five-year average of 14,750 square kilometres.

Out west, "Tornado Alley" also has been quiet this summer. In mid-April, the US looked like it was on pace to set a record with the number of tornadoes this year. Then the storms stopped coming.

In June, there were about 100 tornadoes, the second fewest in more than 60 years of records. Then in July it got even slower, with a preliminary count of 24. Before this year, the fewest tornadoes the US had in July was 73.

But exchanging tornadoes for drought and extreme heat is not a good trade. Tornadoes typically kill one or two people each July, but the heatwaves are killing dozens.

"I think heatwaves are the most dangerous weather phenomena out there," said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist.

Cashing in

For some, the drought will probably be a moneymaker - especially those who fall outside the dry-weather zone.

One of those farmers is Harlan Anderson. The rainfall on his 320-hectare farm 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.

But demonstrating what he described as his Scandinavian sense of reserve, Mr Anderson said he felt a little guilty when talking about how he expected to profit from the misfortune of other farmers.

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

He has started to receive frequent calls in recent weeks from livestock farmers around the country. Some usually grow their own feed, while others buy it from farmers like Mr 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?" Mr Anderson said.

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