Saturday, June 7, 2003

Wet spring has farmers' crops on the ropes

Tobacco, corn, soybeans taking a hit

By Jeremy W. Steele, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and William Croyle, Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Boone County farmer Gary Anderson gathers hay near Petersburg. Anderson said he usually has tobacco in the ground in May, but a wet spring delayed this year's planting.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
Warren County farmer Joe Steiner has spent a lot of time indoors lately, repairing farm machinery and catching up on paperwork.

He's not alone.

With more than 7 inches of rain in the Cincinnati area last month - 2.7 inches more than normal - Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky farmers have been forced out of the fields.

"We try to keep busy so we don't have to think about the rain," said Steiner, who farms 1,100 acres near Mason.

It's a cruel twist of Mother Nature's humor. Fair weather in April helped Ohio farmers get their crops planted. Statewide, 93 percent of this year's corn crop and 70 percent of soybeans have been planted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Corn and soybean production is a $43 million industry in Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties.

But late spring downpours and cooler-than-normal temperatures are wreaking havoc on some crops. The cool temperatures discourage growth and won't dry out the wet fields.

And the wet fields keep farmers out.

In Kentucky, tobacco farmers are struggling with their second consecutive year of wet weather. Tobacco was a $285 million industry in Kentucky in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Agricultre.

"The rain has the soils so saturated that farmers can't even transplant the tobacco," said Jerry Brown, a Boone County agriculture extension agent.

One of those farmers is Gary Anderson, who grows tobacco on 35 acres between his two farms in Petersburg and Burlington.

"I haven't planted any. Normally I'm half done, but I don't even have it plowed yet because it's too wet," Anderson said. "If you plant it when the ground is too wet, you pay for it later."

Boone County produces nearly 2 million pounds of tobacco each year. In Kenton County, 662,000 pounds of tobacco are produced each year, while Campbell County yields 362,000 pounds.

But those figures are expected to be lower this year.

Gary Palmer, tobacco specialist for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, uses a formula based on monthly rainfall to predict tobacco yield.

"Thus far, the rainfall is showing we've probably lost 150 pounds an acre, so it's already on the critical side," he said.

And the cool, moist conditions are encouraging some disease growth. The bacterium pithium, which causes root pruning, and rizoctonia, which attacks the stem of a plant, have been found in Boone County soils. The conditions also are ripe for blue mold, which can destroy the tobacco crop.

Corn and soybean farmers across the Ohio River aren't faring much better.

Slugs are feeding on corn and soybeans in some fields. In others, the cool weather has kept seeds from sprouting or stunted their growth, leaving them susceptible to rotting in the wet soil.

"The seed salesmen I've talked to are saying it's as bad as it's ever been," said Steiner, who had to replant some of the corn he originally planted May 1.

He's given up on finishing the 10 or so acres of corn he hasn't been able to plant yet. Instead, he's focusing on the 500 acres of soybeans he still has to get into the ground.

"With corn, the more you wait, you really lose yield potential," Steiner said. "Soybeans, you can still get good yields if the weather straightens around for the rest of the summer."

That's the real mystery. The National Center for Environmental Prediction is forecasting normal temperatures and precipitation through the summer. Temperatures are expected to hit the upper 70s again this week, but rain remains an ever-present threat, according to the National Weather Service.

"This year, in some ways, unfortunately, reminds me a little bit of last year," said Greg Meyer, Warren County agriculture extension agent. "We got some planting done early, but the rain stopped us. Unfortunately last year, when the rain stopped, it stopped."

That resulted in a drought and one of the worst years in recent history on record for area farmers.

It was also a hard year on horse and cattle owners. Hay prices have nearly doubled because of shortages caused by the drought.

And with fields wet and barns still waiting for a resupply of hay, prices aren't expected to go down.

"I'm sure there were people who sold animals this last year because they couldn't afford the feed," said Steve Bartels, agriculture extension agent for Butler County. "I'm sure if it happens again, you'll see a lot more of that."


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