Schuyler County, Ill. — A group of farmers in western Illinois may be the only ones in the country with mixed feelings about whether or not they want it to rain. Their fields of corn and soybeans are as parched as anywhere.
But dry days are ideal for drilling oil.
These farmers barely scrape out a living from the crops that will grow on this chalky, thin, rolling soil. But some of them have suddenly hit big money by leasing mineral rights on their property to oil drillers and producers, who are harvesting a sizable underground crop of ''black gold.''
''This is a once in a lifetime thing - I haven't got a well doing under 100 barrels a day,'' says Steven Stout, a field operations superintendent for BiPetro Inc., one of the biggest independent oil producers in Illinois. From the driver's seat of his blue pickup truck he scans a horizon of chugging oil pumps.
''These people are definitely going to make some big money around here,'' he adds.''But they're so laid back - no big deal, Lucille . . . I don't think they comprehend the bucks they're going to make.''
The current oil boom, producing more than 5,000 barrels per day (b.p.d.) in this part of Illinois, actually began in Brown County just to the south more than a year ago. It moved here along the La Moine River flood plain only a few months ago. Some oil was discovered here back in the 1960s, but as the Illinois Geological Survey's Howard Schwalb says, ''These are just places that have been overlooked.''
The oil found here is unusually shallow - 400 to 700 feet deep - which makes exploration and production relatively cheap and fast. Productivity often runs 10 times the national average of 15 b.p.d. per well. The common estimate of the life of the oil fields in the two counties is about 20 years, though most residents say that is an optimistic assessment.
Most landowners are suddenly being courted by any number of out of state oil companies. One woman reports eight calls in one day. ''Very few Illinoisans are involved - it's mostly out of state people who go where the action is,'' says George Lane of the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals, which sometimes issues 25 to 30 drilling permits a day here.
Oil, leases, and who has the most recent wells are key conversation topics everywhere here. Information is shared freely, and most locals read with interest the long weekly list of those signing oil and gas leases, published in the Rushville Times. For many people, the new evening entertainment has become a drive through the countryside to check on the status of various wells on the farm.
''There's a whole new language here - the oil people are referred to as oilers and geological terms, such as acidizing the wells, are frequently used,'' notes M. Carolyn Ormond, editor and publisher of the Democrat-Message in Mount Sterling, a town of 2,200 people and the Brown County seat. The newspaper has shifted its coverage accordingly, and over the last year has dished up ample legal advice for landowners involved in the oil boom.
Almost anyone with a business is doing better because of the stepped-up oil activity. For the first time a reservation is needed to stay at either of the motels in the two counties. All corner lunch counters have waiting lines. ''It's made a lot of difference in our business,'' says Doris Hutchison, who with her husband owns D and J Grocers in Camden (pop. 100). ''There are lots of oil people that come in and buy ice cream, soda, and ice - anything that's cool.''
Mount Sterling Mayor John Moorman views the effect of the oil action as an almost solid plus in his community. Oil and gas companies have moved into the dozens of once-vacant storefronts along Main Street. Local unemployment is sharply down. And the mayor notes that Mount Sterling has taken in $13,000 in increased sales tax revenue over the last year.
Several landowners in this poor farming country have become instant millionaires as a result of the oil strikes. But their reaction to the shift is a decidedly conservative variation of television's flamboyant ''Dallas.''
Many have become newly concerned about security. One has hired a bodyguard and several are reluctant to allow reporters to quote them by name. But there is little evidence of any lavish spending. True, one farm wife has a new diamond ring and one landowner has placed his order in Rushville for a new Lincoln Continental. But there is a moral climate here that puts a low premium on extravagance, and these are regarded as the exceptions.
If the nouveau riche here make any purchases at all, it is more often than not a new pickup truck or comparable necessities, such as refrigerators. Many say they will use the money to pay off debts on everything from farm equipment to cash for crop planting. A few were on the verge of bankruptcy or foreclosures when the oil hits came.
''They're all concerned about being able to pay their past bills,'' says Earl Merrill, as he sips a cold drink in the kitchen of a farm owned by Jasper Oil Products, which has stacks of oil piping in the front yard. ''I just wish all of the farmers could hit it (oil) around here because they're going to have a pretty skimpy crop with this hot dry weather.''
So far almost every farmer with an oil strike continues to farm.
''It's the old work ethic - when you've pinched for so many years, your life style basically doesn't change,'' says Etta Jane Walters of Rushville, who owns a small share of a farm that has not yet been leased for drilling. ''Maybe some will get a little better car - one that runs - or take a few more vacations or a little earlier retirement - but there won't be a big change.''
Many property owners are skeptical over how long the boom will last. And most with working wells on their property in Schuyler County insist they have yet to receive their first paycheck. Virginia Bottens sits in the living room of her green mobile home, just a few yards from an oil pump on a pig farm she owns a share of. Until she receives some money, she is making no spending plans.
Those who have been paid for the oil on his or her property will confirm that the difference in income from oil at $29 a barrel and routine crop sales is night and day.
''Before the oil, our crops paid the expense of planting . . . and the taxes, but you couldn't really make a living without some kind of supplement,'' says one Brown County widow, whose 160 acres includes six working wells. Though she is now in the 50 percent tax bracket and declines to be quoted by name, she says she is still driving the same car and works as a volunteer rather than a paid nurse.
''Now I work because I enjoy it,'' she says.''I guess the big difference for me is that I feel I have some security now . . . I'm convinced that money doesn't buy the really valuable things in life.''