Bouncing down a county back road, squinting as a blazing sun intensifies one of the hottest, driest Midwest springs ever, farmer Dale Tuholski steers his pick-up truck between fortune and failure.
To his left, new irrigation machinery sprays a fine mist across his corn field in northern Indiana, where emerald green plants sway in the breeze. To his right is a neighbor's land: the soil dry and dusty, the corn leaves curled.
Amid the warmest first five months of the year since 1894 in the U.S. heartland, a rapidly expanding minority of farmers like the Tuholskis and Kyle Clute - who manages 25,000 acres 100 miles southwest of Tuholski's farm - are taking out an expensive hedge against increasingly volatile weather: buying new irrigation equipment for their corn or soybean fields.
"We don't want Mother Nature to control our destiny anymore," said Clute, who farms corn and soybean fields in Warren County, Indiana.
The potent mix of ever-warmer weather and expectations of near-record farm income of $92 billion for 2012 is fueling all-time-high sales of such equipment, with revenues up a third or more at leading firms. Center-pivot irrigators are particularly popular with farmers in water-strapped areas because the machinery can extend the reach of limited natural resources.
While many farmers are merely upgrading aging equipment, manufacturers say that a sizeable share is now being sold to growers who have never before irrigated. In Indiana, the number of registered new wells is growing at the fastest rate in two decades; drilling firms are struggling to keep up with demand.
As the trend grows, the implications will spread.
In a year like this one, for instance, even small shifts in the amount of acreage that is mechanically irrigated could help mitigate yield losses. For analysts and grain traders, such shifts could complicate efforts to forecast production outcomes based on weather conditions.
It may also intensify the growing friction over water use as expanding populations, bumper crop harvests, ethanol production and even the boom in hydraulic fracturing consume ever-larger volumes of the country's finite water supply.
While the amount of water needed for traditional dryland crop fields is likely to remain small, environmentalists caution that a new, and potentially large, consumer group tapping into the nation's groundwater supply could have untold consequences.
CORN BELT EYES WATER
About 94 percent of the nation's four major commodity crops - corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton - is grown on farmland that relies on rain for moisture, according to the most recent federal data from 2008. About 61 percent of that land is in the western half of the country, in states including Nebraska, California, Idaho and Kansas.