Heat takes toll on trees, crops and horses

jwarren@herald-leader.comJuly 2, 2012 

Trees across the region are drooping from lack of rain; produce farmers are watching their crops shrivel; and horse farms are taking steps to protect their priceless Thoroughbreds as hot, dry weather continues to scorch Central Kentucky.

But WKYT-TV chief meteorologist Chris Bailey said there could be some hope, even though 90-degree temperatures are expected to continue for several days.

"We have a daily threat of scattered thunderstorms for the rest of this week," Bailey said Monday. "That doesn't mean everybody will get rain on any given day, but I do believe that everybody will have at least one decent rain from a thunderstorm before the week is over."

That couldn't come soon enough for many, including arborists who say the lack of rain is starting to threaten countless trees.

"I see trees that are already losing their leaves; trees that are dry as toast; trees that are dying," said Lexington arborist Dave Leonard. "It's probably the worst situation I've ever seen this early in the season, and that's going back 40 years."

Leonard and John Saylor, arborist for Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, say homeowners should water their trees.

"People think to water their gardens or their lawns, but they often don't think to water their trees," Saylor said.

Central Kentucky's fruit and vegetable farmers are being hit particularly hard, many of them struggling to maintain crops under hot, cloudless skies that have provided almost no life-giving rain for weeks

"Vegetables are drying up, even though we irrigate pretty much non-stop," said Adrienne Lewis, whose family operates Cleary Hill Farm in Anderson County. "Now it's not a matter of trying to get plants to produce, it's just hoping to keep them alive until we get some rain."

Lewis said heat and lack of rain hinder tomatoes, beans, peppers and other plants from setting fruit, which could mean there won't be anything to harvest in a few weeks when the plants normally would mature.

Many farmers are worried, said Jeff Dabbelt, manager of the Lexington Farmers Market. He noted that irrigation is too costly for many produce farmers and that sources of free water, such as small streams and creeks, are drying up.

"I've never seen such serious looks on farmers' faces," Dabbelt said Monday. "They're saying things like they might not have any produce left to sell in a month or so if they don't get rain."

The area's famed Thoroughbred horse farms are not facing such problems. But breeders are being careful to protect their horses from the stifling heat.

Ned Toffey, general manager at Spendthrift Farm, said workers bring horses inside barns during the hottest part of the day and use fans, water sprays and other steps if necessary to keep them cool and comfortable.

"As with people, it's the older and younger horses that are probably the most prone to issues. But we watch all horses very carefully for any signs of heat distress." Toffey said.

"People tend to worry about horses in cold weather, but really horses can tolerate the cold much better than they can tolerate the heat," he added.

Overall, the weather during the past three months has left little for farmers to be happy about, said Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer. That's particularly true in Western Kentucky, where heat and lack of rain have devastated farms, he said.

"It's almost a total loss over there; if it doesn't rain in the next two weeks it will be a total loss," Comer said. "We have a lot of farmers who are going to be hurting this fall. I just hope this doesn't have a pattern like what happened in Texas and Oklahoma, where they went through four straight years of severe droughts."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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