Crop hopes drying up

LOUISVILLE — Western Kentucky farmer Terry Rhodes isn't banking on his corn crop yielding a profit after suffering through a summer drought that has spurred a request for federal disaster assistance for a broad swath of the state's grain belt.

Rhodes, who farms in Daviess and Ohio counties, said Wednesday that his corn yields of 160 to 170 bushels an acre so far are down about 30 percent from last year's above-average crop.

"It's been extremely dry," he said. "It's going to put a hardship on everybody's income this year. Even though price is up, we just don't have the bushels to sell this year that we normally do."

With about 70 percent of his 1,900-acre corn crop already harvested, Rhodes was unsure whether he could muster a profit: "It may just be a break-even situation."

Drought conditions have lowered expectations for many Kentucky grain farmers, prompted livestock producers to dip into winter hay supplies and even forced some to haul in water to thirsty livestock.

Gov. Steve Beshear responded Tuesday by requesting disaster assistance for 35 counties, most of them in Western Kentucky.

Beshear said in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the dry conditions have "critically impacted" the state's agriculture sector.

Greg Henson, agricultural extension agent in McLean County, said it's shaping up as the worst drought in the Western Kentucky county since 1983. The result will be sharply lower corn and soybean yields, he said.

"We could easily end up with less than half a bean crop," he said. "And I'm expecting we'll end up with about 60 percent of a corn crop. ... So we're hurt pretty good."

Henson said he has yet to hear reports of a normal corn yield in the county. Later-planted corn has been especially hard hit since "its entire lifetime was spent in this drought," he said.

"Thank goodness for crop insurance and thank goodness we've got relatively high prices," he said.

"We'll survive this thing, but everybody will get some kind of indemnity on crop insurance — everybody who has got it. And the high prices help cover some of the yield loss. So it won't be as bad as it could have been."

Alex Dodd, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Paducah, said the Western Kentucky city endured 37 consecutive days of temperatures of 90 degrees or higher — the second-longest streak on record for the city.

Tom Priddy, a University of Kentucky extension agricultural meteorologist, said the "double whammy" of hot, dry conditions "took a huge toll on the corn." Priddy said the western third of Kentucky is in a moderate drought while portions of the central and bluegrass regions are abnormally dry.

Dodd said the state could get a soaking from the remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine late in the week, but he said it's unlikely to put much of a dent in the overall drought conditions. Factoring in that September and October are generally the driest times of the year, he said, the "odds are it will get a little bit worse before it gets better."

In its weekly crop report Tuesday, the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Kentucky field office said the extended hot, dry weather is causing "widespread concern about how late crops will turn out."

The report said that 54 percent of Kentucky's corn crop was rated either very poor, poor or fair.

Meanwhile, 67 percent of the state's soybean crop was rated very poor, poor or fair. The state's tobacco crop was faring better, with 46 percent of the leaf rated good and 17 percent excellent, the report said. Pastures also have suffered, with 67 percent rated very poor, poor or fair.