'I'm desperate for rain': Farmers, experts sound the alarm on a potential Kentucky drought

·4 min read

When Joseph Sisk looks out at his corn crop, he sees gray spots mixed in with the lush and leafy foliage. For many, this wouldn't seem like a big deal — the untrained eye may not even be able to notice the difference between the dead patches and the sea of green.

But for Sisk, the president of the Kentucky Corn Growers Association, those gray, folded leaves are a dire warning: there's no rain.

Farmers aren't the only ones who have seen the dry pattern. Over the past 30 days, meteorologists have recorded "abnormally dry conditions" for this time of year, according to Dan McKemy with the National Weather Service in Louisville. In that span of time, Kentucky has seen between 50-75% of rainfall that would normally be expected, the weather service said.

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But it's farmers who must reap what they sow. And this year, with less rainfall in important farming spots around Western Kentucky combined with extreme heat in the forecast, Sisk said corn farms could be in for significant water stress as we get deeper into summer.

"I'm desperate for rain," Sisk said.

Water stress comes as corn does not get enough water to pull from the ground, according to Sisk. As the corn grows, there will be less water to evaporate into the atmosphere — and a smaller yield when the corn stops growing.

How is the heat impacting crop yields?

Crop yields are difficult to measure before they are reaped each year.

Corn will still continue to grow even if there's no water to pull from the ground, Sisk said. But the yield will be smaller when it comes time to harvest.

And right now, Sisk said, conditions are dire.

"There's no more water for (the corn) to go get," he said.

The mixture of heat, no rainfall and a regular breeze can dry out a field, according to Sisk. He likened the wind to drying your hands with the blow dryer instead of using a paper towel after washing your hands.

That breeze can hasten evaporation, Sisk said, which hurts your eventual yield.

"The longer it says dry, the more exponential it becomes," Sisk said. "We're on the precipice of a very bad weather event."

A row of dried-up corn crops
A row of dried-up corn crops

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The problem isn't just Kentucky's burden to bear. Corn, one of the leading U.S. exports according to the U.S. Agricultural Export Yearbook, is more than just a good side dish with your enchilada. It's also used in soft drinks, snack foods, cereals, salad dressings, chewing gum, peanut butter, hominy grits, taco shells and dozens of other flower products.

Those are just the parts of corn that people use to eat, too. Corn can also be found in industrial products like soaps, paint, corks, polish, adhesives, rubber substitutes, wallboard, dry-cell batteries, textile furnishings, cosmetic powders, candles, dyes and even pharmaceuticals, according to Reuters.

Products that use corn are so common in everyday life that when corn exports drop, nearly everyone suffers.

Two years ago, Sisk said, farmers saw extreme dryness on their fields, but eventually, it rained.

Right now, Sisk is worried that the relief may not come soon enough.

The "unbelievable" heat over the past 30 days has put farmers in a bind. Without a steady amount of rain to water their fields, farmers like Sisk reap their crops with the possibility of diminished returns.

Folded corn leaves from little water supply.
Folded corn leaves from little water supply.

Does this mean we're in a drought?

Not exactly, but the conditions are right for one if they keep up.

As local meteorologist Tom Reaugh explained, a large portion of Kentucky is currently in what is known as D-0 rating, or in an "abnormally dry" state.

This means that because of the blazing heat and the lack of precipitation, there is not enough moisture to stabilize crops.

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Louisville and surrounding counties are currently experiencing D-0 conditions, along with some portions of Southern Indiana, according to a weekly drought report released Thursday by the weather service. Portions of Western Kentucky, however, are currently in a D-1, which is considered a "moderate drought."

U.S. Drought Monitor for June 21, 2022
U.S. Drought Monitor for June 21, 2022

The agency put out a three-month forecast Friday which shows the outlook on U.S. seasonal drought. In it, the National Weather Service showed Western Kentucky is under the "Drought development likely" category this summer.

The National Weather in Louisville stated in its recent climate data release that a drought may develop in the western half of Kentucky.

In the more recent future, based on the outlook from the National Weather Service in Louisville for the next two weeks, Reaugh believes conditions are going to stay dry through Independence Day. However, local meteorologist Samantha Michlowitz said there's an opportunity the state could see showers Sunday.

Sisk, though, is hoping for wet weather before Independence Day. His crops need it now.

"If it does not rain until July 4, and it is 95 degrees plus, I won’t be riding around looking at any corn," Sisk said.

Contact Caleb Stultz at cstultz@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Caleb_Stultz.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky weather: Farmers concerned with drought amid heat wave