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Record drought is good business for some

By Rich Phillips, CNN
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri August 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nearly half of the continental U.S. is experiencing severe drought
  • More than half of U.S. counties are designated disaster zones
  • Irrigation systems are benefiting from the extreme drought
  • Jim Reid: "It's a debt to me, but it's a benefit to me to have a commodity to sell"

Peach County, Georgia (CNN) -- The strange, twisted metal Erector Set-looking apparatus is known in farming circles as a pivot.

It might also be called a life-saver or, at the very least, a farm-saver. Because if you're a farmer and you have a pivot -- a farming word for irrigation system -- then you're probably not feeling the effects of the drought that is now plaguing more than 60% of the U.S.

"We've put in a lot of pivots in the last five years for people that never did have it before," said Elton Sharp of Sharp Irrigation Systems in Georgia. "It hurts us to see their crops burning up because we know that they're losing money."

Sharp says his irrigation business has doubled in the past two years. The summer is supposed to be his slower season, but not recently.

Typically, he says, the summer season is busy with repairs, but the past couple of years, his company is doing more installations in places like a soybean field in Marshallville, Georgia. His business is booming.

"We're not normally still behind putting up pivots. We're still putting them in for this year's crop," he said.

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More than half of all U.S. counties have been designated disaster zones, the Department of Agriculture reported, blaming excessive heat and a devastating drought that's spread across the Corn Belt and contributed to rising food prices.

According to the agency, only 27% of U.S. farmland has irrigation systems. They're expensive, running well over $100,000, depending on the size of the field that needs watering. But it appears to be a necessary investment for farmers struggling to deal with harsh heat and little rain. Betting on the gift of rain from Mother Nature is a lot like rolling the dice.

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"Once a crop is growing, during each week, it has specific water requirements," said Jim Reid of Reid Brothers Irrigation. "If those water requirements are not met that week, then the yield is diminished."

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Reid's crews are working six days a week, almost 12 hours a day, to install and repair watering systems for farmers. On this day, he and his crew are working on a cotton field, connecting a new well to irrigation pivots on the other end of a cotton field. The farm's surface water is drying up, so Ron Everidge needed a well drilled to help guarantee a return for his money on his cotton.

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"It's a debt to me, but it's a benefit to me to have a commodity to sell," he said. "This is my insurance."

Nearby, at Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley, peaches are nearing the end of their harvest -- and what growers say has been a great year. They're getting paid almost 50% more for their fruit this year.

"These peaches are really full of sugar 'cause of the lack of rain, the lack of water," orchard owner Duke Lane said. "You can taste the difference."

But even these peaches couldn't count on rain. Lane's orchard has irrigation on about 70% of its land.

"Everybody is realizing that water enables us to have a better number at the end of the season," Lane said.

The drought, they say, has resulted in a smaller, sweeter peach that will allow Georgia to live up to its nickname as the Peach State. Too much water and rain can hurt the fruit, because it promotes rot. This year, there was little worry about that.

Complete coverage: U.S. drought

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