UK Agricultural Weather Center helps farmers

By Kristin Martin

While some farmers are appreciating the early crop growth caused by the warmer weather Kentucky has had this year, they know some crops could be at risk if there’s frost in the forecast.

“The entire agricultural industry is probably going 30 days ahead,” said Paul Quarles from Quarles Farm. “That’s pretty odd this time of year.” Mark Henkle has a farm in Jessamine County called Henkle’s Herbs and Heirlooms and he said his friend has been observing a pattern for decades. “If it thunders in February, then it will frost in May,” Henkle said. “So I’m still kind of concerned that there will be a frost.”

The UK Agricultural Weather Center recently created a new Web product that has a Web page for each state and contains information about all aspects of weather forecast, including flu outbreaks.

The center also has a program online that uses Google Maps and allows people to zoom in on their farms and see a site-specific forecast that updates every three hours.

“I check out the Ag Weather for frost,” Henkle said.

Despite that concern, Henkle said he has appreciated the warmer winter because he’s been able to accomplish more with his farm this year than he has during the past colder winters.

Henkle said he was able to put out broccoli and asparagus early this year because those crops could tolerate an unexpected frost. However, not all crops are able to handle a frost, and farmers must keep an eye on the forecast to protect them, said Tom Priddy, the agricultural meteorologist at UK.

“We had the warmest March ever in Kentucky,” he said. “Farmers, when they get that kind of weather in pre-planting season, they get very itchy to get out there and start planting.”

Priddy said once farmers start planting they don’t want to stop. He said that could be risky when it comes to plants with a growing point above ground, like tomatoes and corn, because those crops are weather-sensitive and frost could destroy them. He said that’s what happened five years ago.

Like this year, February and March were mild then, but April brought historically cold temperatures that led to a huge frost that caused over a billion dollars in agricultural damage in the states that the frost affected, he said.

“If we can keep farmers from doing that again, that’s a good thing,” Priddy said. “After the experience from just 2007, we’ve put out articles to news media and to farmers across the state that say put a brake on it.”

However, Henkle is able to protect his tomato plants without putting a brake on growing them.

“I have all of these in pots because they are mobile and can move them in and out,” he said.

Henkle said he doesn’t plant the weather-sensitive crops in the ground until after Derby Day each year.

“Farmers know that if you plant before the average date of the last frost, which is around April 15, you’re taking a risk,” Priddy said. “Some don’t mind taking a little bit of risk because they’ve got so much to plant.”

After the 2007 frost, farmers might be less likely to take that risk. Priddy said insurance companies were hit hard then and now won’t cover crop loss from frost if the crops were planted prior to that average date of the last frost for the season in Kentucky.

Priddy said it’s important that people work together to get information out about weather changes and how to protect crops.

“In 1996, the National Weather Service stopped providing agricultural weather services across the nation,” he said. “So land-grant universities that had offices like this – Ag Weather Centers, and there’s only a few of us left – picked up the pieces of that agricultural weather program.”

Priddy, who has been at UK about 35 years, said the best part of being an agricultural meteorologist is helping people by keeping them informed.

“The mission of the Ag Weather program is to minimize weather-related surprise to Kentucky residents for their agricultural needs,” Priddy said. “You just hope that’s getting out to the farmers.”