By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — The worst drought in decades has created havoc for farmers all over the country, but for those who believe it is a thing of the past – think again. The country is still in the dry-weather stronghold and it’s a problem even though most crops have been harvested.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows most of the country is suffering from some level of drought, with much of the Great Plains still in extreme or exceptional drought. The conditions have worsened since October, which is a traditionally dry month for many areas, including Kentucky where modest increases in abnormal dryness were recorded in a 30- to 60-day period.
But the Bluegrass State is in relatively good shape compared with those west of the Mississippi River. The winter wheat crop is now in the crosshairs of the drought. In Kansas, the largest wheat producer in the country, nearly a quarter of the winter crop is listed as poor or very poor. The news is worse for states like South Dakota, where the wheat is reported to be 60 percent poor to very poor and in Oklahoma, where nearly half the crop is in bad shape.
The nation’s corn has already been hit hard. The latest information from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported the crop is off 13 percent from last year, marking the lowest production since 2006. Yields are estimated to be nearly 25 bushels per acre lower than those in 2011, representing the lowest numbers since 1995.
The percentages vary from state to state. Kentucky’s corn crop suffered extensive damage. NASS estimates a 42 percent decline in the total number of bushels from the 2011 crop and yield expectations to be less than half of that experienced last year.
There were some bright spots for pumpkin and grape growers. Both crops fare well in dry weather and producers around the area reported good harvests.
As the Christmas holiday approaches and the hunt for the perfect tree intensifies, tree farms may have fewer offerings thanks to the drought – but there should be plenty to go around.
According to Kyle Holmberg, marketing specialist with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), some growers reported new seedling losses of up to 80 percent and losses of mature trees running between 10-20 percent in those areas hit hardest by the drought and excessive heat.
The real losses probably won’t be noticed, however, for a few years since it takes typical Christmas tree varieties 6-7 years to mature, noted information from the TDA. Despite the difficulties some tree farms faced, both the TDA and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture are promoting their industries as a way to get a great holiday tree and help local producers do something good for the environment. The TDA stated all field-grown Christmas tree varieties are a completely renewable, 100 percent biodegradable and recyclable resource that contains no petroleum products and leaves a negligible carbon footprint.
Christmas trees can also be grown in areas where more traditional row crops can’t be planted.
“Christmas tree farms enable families to make holiday memories,” Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said. “They also help Kentucky farmers make a living. I encourage all Kentucky families to buy a fresh Kentucky Proud tree this holiday season.”
Dale Barker, owner of Barker’s Christmas Tree Farm near Lexington and president of the Kentucky Christmas Tree Assoc., has devised a creative way to get customers back to his business year after year. He takes photos of each family and posts them the following year for pick-up.
“They have to come back the next year to get their picture,” said Barker. “We’ve had people collect pictures for 10 years. You watch their kids grow up.” He has about 600 photos from last year displayed in a small barn.