Farmers in West Kentucky Feel the Pinch of Long Drought

Jun 10, 2012

On his Calloway County farm, Mark Paschall is getting ready for a long, dry summer. During 58 years on a farm, Paschall has seen many droughts. This one, he says, is a bad one.

“It’s as dry this time of year as I’ve ever seen it,” Paschall says. “I think it hurt our wheat crop 10-15 maybe 20 bushels an acre, because it all got ready at once. When the early and the late wheat get ready at once there’s got to be a common denominator at that common denominator was dryness.”

And Paschall’s correct. The United States Drought Monitor released the latest figures for the ongoing dry-spells around the country last week. Over the past 8 months a drought has been developing across the region, and Calloway County is in the epicenter of what Drought Monitor Climatologist Brian Fuchs calls a D-2. That’s the designation given by the system they use to determine how bad a particular drought is. Fuchs explains the system:

“Instead of focusing on a single indicator which would be, you know where the rivers and stream flows are at or how much rain you have or have not received. Or maybe just one of the various drought indices that are out there, what we do is we try to compile all that information.”

From here the system gets a little complicated. So here it is in laymen’s terms. The system boils all the information they’ve collected about local climates down to five ranking levels labeled D-0 through D4. D-0 is the least dry, D4 is the driest. Deadly dry, in fact. D-2 means the indicators are in the driest 10% of historic levels.

That’s the level of the West Kentucky region – Severe drought. That means it’s so dry, crops without irrigation are starting to suffer. Fuchs says this system is useful because it provides climatologists with a way to compare current conditions and use them as a predictor for the future.

“…because we’re not looking at the absolute amount,” explains Fuchs, “but we’re looking at how it ranked historically and what that’s telling us is just how often conditions like this occur.”

Those predictions can help farmers like Paschall prepare. He says,

“That’s the one thing I’ve learned over all these years. When you go to the high value crop per acre, you’ve got to have the ability to water it.”

But even a well prepared farmer is hurt by a drought. Irrigation can save a crop, but it still hurts the bottom line. Paschall says,

“Because you have to have to pay for lots of diesel fuel and or propane, depending on how you’re pumping it – electricity. Irrigation comes at a cost.”

Sometimes that cost is too high, especially for a small farmer. But Paschall says this year they’ve been lucky. He says decent prices for what they have been able to harvest kept their losses lower than they could be. And Calloway County Ag Extension Agent Todd Powell says even if the drought doesn’t end, some timely rains like the storm last week could save the season. He says,

“It’s hurting right now and yes we’re in a drought but there’s still the chance of making a good crop if we can get the rain at the right times.”

Powell works with area farmers and says the rain was a welcome relief for everyone, and it bought those farmers a little more time. He says,

“At this point any little bit helps but we’re still way behind were we should be…”

And Climatologist Brian Fuchs says that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

“The one key feature about drought is it is identified as being slow onset and slow recovery," says Fuchs.

So it looks like farmers will have to wait it out and hope for the best, something Mark Paschall says he’s gotten good at during his years of farming. But he says he and other farmers have the same feeling when they look out at their fields this year. An idea Ag Extension Agent Todd Powell was able to sum up in a few short words.

“We need rain…" He says, "...bad.”