Farm Crisis
Photo:
Ray Paulick
Editor in Chief
Second-term Rep. Ernie Fletcher is having a fund-raiser May 25 at the Donamire Farm of Lexingtonians Don and Mira Ball. That's too bad. Not that the picturesque farm isn't a nice place for a party. (It was, after all, used as the setting for last year's movie flop, Simpatico.) Also, Republican Fletcher is extremely supportive of the horse industry and, in return, is certain to receive financial backing for his re-election campaign.

The problem is that fund-raising events at places like Donamire Farm, with its 13,000-square-foot residence, help shape the image of the Thoroughbred breeding industry in Kentucky. The image is a false one.

Rep. Fletcher knows that Kentucky's No. 1 agricultural product -- a $1-billion business -- is in a state of crisis, due to the unexplained deaths of hundreds of 2001 foals and the loss of pregnancies in an excessively high percentage of mares bred this year. Economic damages could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the impact will be felt for years.

Fletcher, along with the seven other members of Kentucky's congressional delegation, sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman seeking assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on what they termed an industry "disaster."

While everyone will be affected by the crisis, it is more of a disaster to the thousands of people who make their living as farmers, those whose chief crop happens to be a Thoroughbred, than it is to millionaire homebuilders or oilmen who have something else to fall back on if their horse investments turn sour. The image of the industry might be Donamire, or one of the other showplace farms belonging to people who made their fortunes in other businesses.

This isn't meant in any way to criticize people like the Balls, who have been enormously supportive of various charitable causes, but they probably don't represent the rank-and-file horse farmers, whose lives (and, often, life savings) are tied up in their horses.

These are the people who arise for the 3 a.m. foalings, who hold the lead shank for the veterinarian, who lend a hand in the breeding shed if the help doesn't show up. It's doubtful many of these people will be able to attend the Fletcher fund-raiser. They may be too busy checking on their mares, their foals, and their fields.

Those are the people Ernie Fletcher and other politicians in Washington, D.C., or Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton and key members of his staff in Frankfort, need to know. Only then will they fully understand the economic and personal hardships this equine health crisis is creating.

The horror stories are out there. There's the small boarding operation that's virtually wiped out, having lost 28 of its 30 equine tenants when out-of-state mare owners insisted on having the mares shipped elsewhere; two of the farm owner's three mares aborted their foals. There's the farm manager who lost his job after an unexplained foal death. The established farm whose clients are starting to second-guess its manager's horsemanship after their mares aborted.

Stress levels are high. Balance sheets are stretched. Breeders who took out loans to buy mares did so expecting a return on their investment with this year's foal crop, or next year's. They didn't anticipate 50% or more of their crop could be wiped out by a mysterious killer.

Those who have escaped the eye of this storm aren't sleeping much easier, either. Farm managers awaken with knots in their stomachs, wondering if this is the day they'll learn their best mare has lost her foal.

It used to be breeders hoped for an uncomplicated birth, and a straight-legged, well-conformed foal. Now they're just happy to see a foal take its first breath, or show up with movement on the screen of an ultrasound machine. It's the simple things that count now.

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