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Kentucky agriculture community reconciles tornado damages to infrastructure, research and livelihood

Kentucky’s agriculture community is reconciling its losses after a devastating and lethal tornado outbreak earlier this month damaged or destroyed poultry hatcheries and grain bins, killed livestock and destroyed a university research center in western Kentucky.

Republican Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said he predicts the outbreak will be the biggest agricultural loss due to a natural disaster in the state’s history, though it would be a few weeks before the full extent of agriculture-related damage is known.

“We actually have cattle deaths and barns down as far east as Spencer and Shelby County, going all the way out to the most western reaches of Kentucky,” Quarles said. “You have swaths of Kentucky farmland without fences anymore. Right now, we're trying to focus on getting cattle and horses and other livestock back to their owners and making sure that they're healthy as well.”

Quarles said he’s specifically heard reports of about 20 to 30 chicken barns have collapsed in the state, some without chickens inside. He said the poultry industry has been hit especially hard, with hatcheries run by Pilgrim’s Pride in Graves County being destroyed.

He also said making available mental health resources is crucial in the weeks ahead for farmers and the wider community because of this disaster. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture was awarded a $500,000 grant in November to work with universities in the state in expanding mental health resources in rural parts of the state. Quarles in particular mentioned using the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for those who are struggling.

“Whether they're a farmer or not, they're affected by the storm. You know, give them a phone call. Check in with them,” Quarles said. “The mental health aspect of this storm is just now starting to set in because the recovery effort is going to take not just months but probably years.”

Quarles said farmers in the region are needing a variety of supplies, ranging from gloves and overalls to fencing and cattle feed. Two farming equipment locations in Graves County and Christian County are currently collecting supplies for farmers. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture also has a statewide relief fund for farmers, which has raised more than $65,000 as of Friday.

For Clint Harris, the potential supply-chain issues created by the storm are top of mind. He’s a Graves County poultry farmer whose operation for Tyson Foods was relatively unharmed by the tornado outbreak, overseeing about 126,000 chickens in four chicken houses. But he worries about potential for substantial money lost for other local poultry producers contracted with Pilgrim’s Pride whose hatcheries were destroyed in the county.

He said with the hatcheries getting destroyed, other poultry farmers in the county may not receive many flocks of chickens for their operations in the near future, leading to less income.

“[Poultry farmers] still have to make loan payments,” Harris said. “The facilities are getting so big and so demanding. They don't have a second income. Basically, we're doing just the poultry and that’s it.”

He said he’s also worried about how much poultry in the region could be processed in the near future, with those who would work at the Pilgrim’s Pride meatpacking plant in Graves County potentially displaced by the storm.

In Caldwell County, significant agricultural research was lost when the University of Kentucky Research and Education Center in Princeton was hit by the outbreak. The facility had major renovations, including the addition of the UK Grain and Forage Center of Excellence, in 2019.

University of Kentucky Tobacco Extension Specialist Andy Bailey said historic tobacco barns from the 1940s were also lost at the center.

“They've been there for 75 years, and they got wiped out in about 30 seconds,” Bailey said. “Those barns (have) been there for so long, it's just hard to believe they're not there anymore.”

Bailey said about $500,000 of tobacco infrastructure for curing and growing the crop had been destroyed, with research vehicles scattered across the facility.

Bailey said his tobacco research team would normally have about 15 research trials a year. Now, he’s not sure if he’ll have any trials in the next two years. He said much of the overall research with row crops and livestock at the center – he estimates totaling around 100 research trials a year – will likely have to be put on hold.

But he’s confident the center will rebuild after seeing how local farmers and others have stepped up to help clear debris at the facility site.

“We're gonna just all move to Lexington, or we gonna stay here and rebuild?” Bailey said. “It’s clear now. After all the support we've got? Yeah, we're gonna rebuild, no doubt about that. It's just gonna take a while.”

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