EARLIER: Hail pounds tobacco crop

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By Todd Martin

During a time when Shelby County farmers are normally fighting a drought, they are now fighting severe storm damage and too much water.

Storms swept through the region early Saturday morning and again Saturday evening, dropping a total of about 3.5 inches of rain and leaving several farmers from Eminence to Southville with crops heavily damaged by wind and hail.

Rain fell again Monday night and Tuesday morning, dropping about another inch on the county and leaving low-lying fields in dangers of flooding.

The hardest hit area appears to be a narrow band stretching from Vigo Road north to Cropper and east through Bagdad.

Brett Reese, the Shelby County Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources, said this is as bad as he's ever seen it.

"There's been extensive damage from Eminence to about Southville," he said. "I've seen probably three [tobacco] fields that were completely ruined by hail and wind.

"Overall, we're probably talking about 10 percent loss in corn and soybeans and 40 percent-plus on tobacco."

And with temperatures remaining high through the weekend, there is at least a chance of rain everyday.

"We're not quite there with water damage yet, because it takes a little longer for that to set in," Reese said. "But if a plant was disease-stressed at all already, it could push it over the edge."

Reese said some farmers may stand to loose a second crop of tobacco in some fields.

"It was really wet at the end of May and in early June, so a lot of low-lying fields were already washed out or drowned," he said. "The difference now is it's too late to reset those fields."

Now, Reese said it's a matter of trying to help the plants maintain.

"It could easily get worse," he said. "There are a lot of plants on the ground right now, and if they don't get set up before more rain, they could rot.

"It's pretty bad out there right now."

Surveying the damage

Gene Witt said he had about 40 acres of tobacco nearly ruined from the storms.

"It's not a total loss, but there are a lot of broken leaves and holes," he said. "There's quite a bit of damage. It's going to be tough to get them sprayed and topped. It's hurt the crop pretty bad."

Witt said it was the combination of the two storms on Saturday.

"The first storm was basically wind, and a lot of the plants had started to straighten back up, but the second one with the hail did a lot of damage."

Tobacco plants were not the only things damaged, either.

Doug Langley leases farmland off Vigo Road where a tobacco barn was reduced to a pile of boards and twisted tin.

"I lost a considerable amount of tobacco from the hail and wind, but the biggest loss was the barn," he said. "It's just not feasible for me to ask a landlord to build another tobacco farm with all the cutbacks and changes. I'm just going to have to retire that land from tobacco.

"So I not only lost the crop there this year, but now I can't grow tobacco there any more because there's no barn. I'll just have to plant more corn or soybeans there now.

"Every time a tobacco barn goes down in this county, it just means there is one less. Nobody's going to rebuild them."

John Rothenburger, who has a tobacco field near Langley's on Vigo Road, said he hopes to be able to salvage a good bit.

Where Witt had already topped much of his beat-up 40 acres, Rothenburger's plot of about 4.5 acres had not.

"I was just getting ready to come through and top it," he said. "I'm hoping I can salvage about eighty percent of it, we'll just have to see. Sometimes if you give it two or three days it looks a little better. We'll just have to get out here and stand it up."

More to be found

Though the damage to the corn crop doesn't appear to be nearly as bad, it could come up worse in the coming weeks.

"It's hard to gauge right now in the bigger fields," Bill Gallrein said. "We won't know until we get out into it to harvest."

The problem now, Gallrein said, isn't as much the lost corn as the work to harvest it.

"A lot of it that went down was ready to be harvested anyway," he said. "But now we have to go through and harvest it by hand. We had to hire a few extra guys and it's going to be costly, but we'll get it all. We're still picking fresh corn daily."

One big hit the farm did take was the possible loss of the annual fall maize maze.

"The maze corn was blown down, but we'll have to see if we can figure something out for that," he said.

Langley said, as of now, his corn crop looked much better than the tobacco crop.

"We'll find more out later, but we didn't lose 100 percent of any of the corn fields," he said. "Maybe 10 to 20 percent loss right now."

Claiming insurance

Pat Hargadon, an insurance agency manager with Kentucky Farm Bureau, said the company had more than 400 personal calls -- including farms, barns and homes -- by Monday afternoon.

"It probably isn't as bad as the hurricane [Ike] in 2008 or the ice storm last year, but it's pretty bad," he said. "Luckily it doesn't look like anybody was hurt, at least not that I heard of."

Hargadon said crop insurance would help some farmers depending on what kind of coverage they have.

Much like flood insurance, crop insurance is administered by the federal government.

"Most of those policies will cover hail and wind and fire if it's in a barn," he said. "Then based on the severity of the damage, they'll send out a crop adjuster. They'll evaluate the crop and the damage. But most of that won't be settled until after the harvest."

Reese said claims on tobacco crops likely won't be seen until near the end of the year.

"Most will have to try to harvest it, and then when they get their final weights they'll get paid a percentage of what they would normally get," he said. "It's usually based over like a five-year period."

Federal help

Because Gov. Steve Beshear declared Shelby County a State of Emergency, there is a chance for federal help.

County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger said the county was preparing a letter to the governor on Tuesday to declare Shelby County an agricultural disaster area.

"We're composing a letter, saying that the county has suffered 50 percent damage in tobacco and 15 percent damage in both soy beans and corn."

Those numbers are a little higher than what Reese had found, but Rothenburger explained that his numbers also account for future loss.

"With all the plants on the ground right now, and the fact we've had more rain and more is coming, we think those numbers are going to continue to rise," he said.

Getting Beshear to declare the county an agricultural disaster area could bring about low-interest loans and federal help to farmers.

Adam Haggard, the county executive director for the USDA Farm Service Agency, said he is working on a damage report that could lead to help for farmers.

"I'm putting together my report now, and from there it will go to the governor and then to the president," he said. "I'm not sure farmers will be getting any reimbursement. It's hard to say right now because it's early, but I think people are mostly seeing damage right now, not complete loss.

"I think people are going to be able to salvage a lot from tobacco. Now, they may still take a hit, but a lot of that will be between them and their insurance agency."

Haggard did say the he thinks help in the way of loans could become available.

"We're trying right now and there is a lot of damage," he said. "If loans do become available, it will be pretty quick -- probably with in a month."

The one piece of advice Haggard has for farmers: Document your loss.

"What I'm telling people is to make sure they take pictures," he said. "Sometimes the government may come back later and make help available, so make sure you can prove you had damage and loss."