Saturday, August 14, 1999

Drought hit Ky. farmers hardest

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky's crop losses will likely top those of the 1988 drought, which was one of the most disastrous in recent memory.

        The combination of drought and Midwestern bounty is likely to cost Kentucky farmers at least $225 million, according to a USDA crop report.

        “We have the worst of all combinations: low yields and low prices,” said Steve Riggins, University of Kentucky grain economist.

        Corn losses are likely to hit $50 million and soybean losses could top $53 million, based on the national report released Thursday and “these low prices,” Mr. Riggins calculated.

        At least $125 million of the tobacco crop is considered lost, according to projections by Will Snell, UK tobacco economist.

        “That's on top of quota cuts of almost 20 percent, too,” Mr. Snell said.

        The report is based on the USDA's first field surveys of crops this year. The department estimates that at least 17 percent of Kentucky's

        corn crop is gone and the soybean crop will be down at least 27 percent.

        The tobacco crop is projected to be down 14 percent, but that will be mitigated by the extra pounds of quota that growers are able to carry over from last year. When that effective quota is taken into account the crop is down 3 percent, said Leland Brown, state agriculture statistician.

        The state's hay production is down at least 18 percent, according to the report.

        Conditions in Kentucky contrast sharply with the national picture: Ample rains are producing a record soybean crop of 2.87 billion bushels and the third-largest corn crop ever at 9.56 billion bushels.

        And the contrast could grow. Kentucky farmers and grain futures traders think the figures, based on surveys taken at the end of July, underestimate the disparity.

        Kentucky's vegetable farmers are feeling the drought's effects. Hot weather shortened the tomato season and the resulting glut on the market pushed prices down to half of last year's $12 for a 25-pound box, said Brent Rowell, UK vegetable specialist.

        But most tomato and pepper growers have irrigation and, as long as the water held out, were in good shape, he said.

        Pumpkins, said Scott County agent Mark Reese, “are going to be a poor crop.” He puts the harvest at 20 percent, an estimated $350,000 loss.

        One area where prices have stayed high is in the cattle market, which has helped farmers who are forced to sell early or liquidate their herds for lack of feed and water.

        But the lack of hay has the potential to create larger losses in the coming winter and spring in the state's cattle industry, said Lee Meyer, UK livestock analyst.

        If there is a silver lining for Kentucky farmers, it is that this year's tobacco crop will not produce a huge surplus that could cut into the amount that can be grown next year.

        “It reduces the potential for a cut in 2000 quota,” Mr. Snell said. “I would not say eliminate, but alleviate.”

        And farmers probably will get some chance at federal aid.

        Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a $7.4 billion farm assistance bill, and the House is scheduled to take it up after the August recess.

        But much of that relief could be skewed toward large Midwestern grain farmers suffering from low commodity prices, and that might not help Kentucky's small family farms much.


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