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Farmers, consumers will get hit by drought

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 By JENNA MINK

The Daily News, Bowling Green

James Comer has a message for both farmers and consumers: Be prepared.

In the face of one of the worst droughts in history, farmers should brace themselves for small yields and money losses. And consumers should prepare for soaring grocery prices, said Comer, Kentucky commissioner of agriculture.

Comer was in Bowling Green on Friday at the Kentucky Junior Livestock Expo, which was held at Western Kentucky University’s L.D. Brown Agricultural Exposition Center.

“We’re so behind, it’s going to take a lot (of rain) to catch up. If we had stayed like we were two weeks ago, it would have been a complete disaster,” said Ronnie Hargett, a Rich Pond farmer. “If we keep getting some rain ... regularly, we’re going to limp through.”

But many farmers have no hope of even limping through, Comer said. He has visited farms where corn crops are withered, ponds are dry and hay fields are baked.

He spoke with one of the top grain farmers in Kentucky. The Marshall County farmer normally yields up to 200 bushels of corn per acre. This year, he expects as little as six bushels per acre, Comer said.

The drought also has destroyed hay fields. Most farmers cut hay twice a year. During this year’s first cutting, most farmers harvested 40 percent of the hay they usually yield. And there’s no hope for a second cutting, Comer said.

“There will be no fall hay in Kentucky,” he said. “It’s too far gone.”

Overall, the average farmer will lose 60 percent of his or her hay crop this year, he said.

That lack of hay means little food for livestock, and – in the largest beef cattle state east of the Mississippi River – many families will be forced to sell their herds, Comer said.

“And the further west we go in Kentucky, the worse it gets,” he said.

Wendell Terrell of Carlisle sat next to a trailer full of goats and sheep at the expo. He pulled his small, award-winning goat toward him, petting it so its excess skin wrinkled. Once toned, the goat has lost a lot of muscle simply because of the temperatures, Terrell said.

“The heat and the humidity has taken a lot out of her. It’s really killed everybody this time,” he said, adding that he keeps industrial fans blowing on his animals. “But what good’s a fan going to do when it blows hot air on you?”

And finding food for livestock has become a difficult task. Like Bowling Green and the rest of the state, Terrell’s hometown is grappling with a severe loss of hay and corn, he said.

But it’s not only livestock food that will be affected. A diminished supply will cause corn prices to skyrocket, which will increase prices for groceries that range from cereal to meats.

Gas prices will also boom because fuel is made from 10 percent ethanol, which is produced from corn. It will take about six weeks for consumers to notice that price increase, and it will affect people for at least a year, Comer said.

“We’re going to see the highest corn prices we’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said.

Some crops that do yield corn will still be unusable, Comer said, because they will be tainted by nitrogen. Farmers use enough fertilizer on their corn for several bushels, and when the crop yields only a few ears of corn, extra fertilizer that isn’t consumed by the plants filters into the silage, he said.

“And it will poison the livestock,” he said. “So, we’re encouraging farmers to test that.”

It’s the worst drought many farmers have experienced – at least since the 1980s. But times are different than they were 30 years ago. Farmers have more money, and, before this season, they had three very profitable years, Comer said.

“So, they can withstand one bad year financially,” he said.

Still, there’s help out there. Comer’s department is developing a hay hotline, which farmers can call to find hay for their livestock. Workers will track down and purchase hay, and drop it off at distribution points across the state. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has modified its farm loans so they’re processed more quickly and interest rates are lower.

Such assistance is vital to some farmers who struggle, even after a few weeks of sporadic rainfall. Bowling Green’s rainfall total is about 2 inches above normal for July, but the yearlong total is still 5 inches below normal, said Evan Webb with the National Weather Service in Louisville.

Next month’s outlook is dreary, as rainfall amounts are predicted to be below normal, Webb said. “And it gets worse as you move west,” he said.

Hargett is preparing for another rough month because August weather always tends to be dry. But he’s thankful for the rain that watered the area this month, he said.

“Every little bit helps when you’re as desperate as we are,” he said.