Shelby County farmers say rain drowning tobacco

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Crops suffering from too much moisture

By Lisa King

As storms battered Shelby County and much of the state on Wednesday, farmers had to be shaking their heads.

Many years they’re left looking for water during July as drought conditions begin to set in, but all that rain this year is causing its own problems.

Senate Agriculture Chair Paul Hornback, who also farms tobacco and other crops in Shelby County, said that local farmers are suffering, but the worst tobacco damage is in the southern portion of the state.

“The wet weather has devastated the crop down there,” he said.

And here in Shelby County he’s noticing the damage.

“My tobacco is waist tall, and it just drops down, the leaves just drop down and it [water] just kills it. It suffocates it, is what it does. The oxygen is gone out because the ground is saturated with water.”

From the rain throughout the first week of July combined with the storms that rolled through this week the county has already eclipsed its average rain amount for the entire month of July. More than 5 inches of rain have come down this month, and that was on top of a wet June.

Hornback said he has not had a great deal of feedback from other farmers.

“I haven’t talked to many people around the county in the last couple of days, so I don’t really know [how many have experienced crop loss], but I would say it’s a sizable amount,” he said, noting that he’s lost about 5 acres of his 100-acre crop. 

That might not sound like much, but it adds up, he said.

“I’ve probably got about fifteen-hundred [dollars] invested in the crop already, so gross returns off an acre of tobacco is about five-thousand dollars,” he said. “Then you’re talking about losing twenty-five thousand dollars of gross revenue. It is a sizable loss.”

Doug Langley, the county’s largest tobacco producer with 450 acres, said he too has lost about 5 acres.

“A lot of this tobacco, it’s just sitting in water too long, and it’s drowning out,” he said. “We  had five inches of rain over a five or six day period, and the southern part of the state had that much over a shorter period of time, maybe forty-eight hours.”

There is no recovery for the lost crop, he said.

“Once tobacco drowns out, it’s just dead. There’s no coming back after that; what damage is done is done,” he said. “The tobacco that’s not drowned out is growing fast and looks well; it just needs some warm dry weather on it to grow out and use up some of this moisture. What we’re running the risk of now with all the humidity and the amount of moisture that we have, we have blue mold and several diseases that conditions are favorable for right now.”


Blue mold

The good news, said Shelby County Ag Extension Agent Corinne Kephart, is that there are no signs of it in Kentucky yet.

“So far, they have not found any blue mold in Kentucky yet,” she said. “The spores do not over winter here, so it has to be brought in from some place else. It has been confirmed in Pennsylvania, so we’re biding our time, but hopefully the wind currents will go the other direction. Conditions are favorable, but it has to be introduced and it has not been yet.”

Kenny Seebold, plant pathologist at the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension office, said the last time blue mold was found in Kentucky was in 2009. He said it’s puzzling to him why it would show up first in the northern portion of the United States.

“Up until the end of June, nobody was reporting it in the U.S., then they found it in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,” he said. “Normally, it starts out south and moves up, usually from Georgia or Florida. The strange thing is that the same thing happened last year. Somehow, I think that it has somehow managed to survive between crops up there.”

Seebold said that in detecting blue mold, farmers look for a yellow spot on the leaf, usually down toward the plant’s lower region. He urges anyone who finds any to contact their local extension office right away.

“That’s their first initiative, because if they find it, we’re going to want them to take some steps as far as fungicides, plus we like to know where it is at the county level, so that other people around them can take action, because it spreads so far so quickly,” he said.


Other crops also affected

Seebold said that some produce could also suffer blight, caused by too much rain, which is very similar to blue mold.

“The pathogens are in the same group and the diseases behave and look a lot alike, but the tomato pathogens won’t go to tobacco and vice versa,” he said.

Walt Reichert, horticulture technician for the Shelby County Extension office, said growers have been reporting those types of problems in Shelby County.

“We’re seeing a lot of disease in tomatoes, early blight, and some leaf diseases, and when you have four or five days where it just stays wet, disease just spreads that way,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of that, I actually have a plant right here on my desk. There’s a lot of diseases, more so this year, because last year was hot and dry. Probably tomatoes and peppers suffer the most, of course; they’re related to tobacco, they’re all in the same family, the solanaceous family, tomatoes, peppers, tobacco, potatoes, eggplant. The good news it is wet and we got plenty of rain, and the bad news is it’s wet and we got plenty of rain.”

Kephart said the tobacco situation in Shelby is “getting serious,” but said if the weather clears up soon, that could turn things around.

“Hopefully, it will dry out soon and we won’t see any more large losses,” she said.

She said she has not heard an estimate on how much of the state’s tobacco crop has suffered so far.

“I haven’t heard any kind of numbers for the state yet; I’ll be interested to hear about that,” she said.

“We were chugging right along, having a pretty good year, then the rain started. I would guess that just about all tobacco farmers here have been affected to some extent.”