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Shelby County’s corn harvest isn’t so sweet this fall

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Weather swings diminish yields; soybeans strong, tobacco ‘average’

By Todd Martin

As the harvest season moves into full swing across the commonwealth, it looks like farmers survived another difficult growing season – emphasis on “survived.”

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After a spring that saw rainfall reach record levels, farmers had to fight through another dry summer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting Kentucky's corn and soybean crops to exceed last year's totals, but that optimistic outlook isn't carrying over to Shelby County's farmers.

Paul Hornback, the area's state senator who makes his living as a farmer, said this year’s feast-or-famine weather really took its toll.

"We got a late start in the spring because of the weather, and a lot of times, when the year starts off bad, it just stays bad," he said.

Hornback noted that his harvest has been slow to come around, with workers having brought in maybe 100 of his 2,500 acres.

"The dry coupled with the severe heat has been just devastating to some crops," he said.

Farmer Jim Ellis said his corn crops are producing a little less than half of his output from the last two years.

"We're probably averaging about eighty-four bushels an acre this year after a hundred and seventy-two last year and a hundred an seventy-eight the year before that.

Ellis also cited the lack of rain and the hot, still conditions during the pollination period for corn.

The USDA reported corn harvest is behind schedule, with only about 19 percent harvested by the end of last week, compared to more than 50 percent last year and 25 percent on average.

And corn is maturing at a slower rate, with only 58 percent considered mature compared to 85 percent from last year and 71 percent on average for this time.

As of Aug. 1, the USDA expected corn production to reach 194.3 million bushels in Kentucky, up 27 percent from last year. And soybeans are up 27 percent, to about 60 million bushels.

Ellis said farmers hope the bean yield can help offset some of the issues with the corn production.

Beans are better

Hornback noted a difficulty of getting the moisture content in his corn low enough for sale without the use of dryers.

"They look for corn at about 15 percent moisture at market," he said. "And for every point above 15, they charge you 14 cents a pound. With most of our corn at about 20 percent, we're trying to let it sit and let Mother Nature dry it out."

Ellis said he's been able to dry his corn, which has mostly been around 17 percent.

With all the troubles on the north side of town, Ellis said south of I-64 the conditions were much more favorable, as that area received quite a bit more rainfall.

"We don't have any corn down there, but we do have some soybean fields, and I haven't seen them yet, but they tell me they're five feet tall," he said.

Hornback echoed Ellis sentiment that the county varies from side to side.

"There's areas on the north, where the wind swept through and just knocked down a lot of corn and tobacco," he said. "And in some places on the north side of town, the stalks of corn didn't produce any ears. I've seen some fields that would be lucky to produce 25 bushels an acre. They're just grinding it up to produce feed."

Tobacco up but down

Though weather concerns have hurt the corn and bean production throughout the county, burley tobacco continues to struggle with production in Kentucky and nationwide.

The USDA predicts tobacco production to go up 1 percent across the country. However, that 726 million pounds is still down almost 28 percent over the last 10 years.

Despite being the top producer of burley tobacco, Kentucky continues to see its output drop drastically.

Smaller acreage, according to the USDA, is limiting the commonwealth's farmers to about 126 million pounds, down 11 percent from last year and a staggering nearly 43 percent from a decade ago

Farmers in Tennessee, however, are seeing an increase in tobacco. As the No. 2 producer of burley, the state is expected to bring in about 54 million pounds this year, up almost 20 percent from last year. Tennessee farmers also produce a large amount of fire-cured tobacco, which is used in chewing tobacco, pipes and snuff.

About 57 percent had been cut as of last week, compared to nearly 75 percent last year and 67 percent at this time during a 5-year average.

But Hornback said the crop looks to be mostly average across Shelby County.

"There's some real good looking tobacco out there, but there's some awful bad tobacco, too," he said.