"It's ahead of last year, though, because last spring we had so much rain combined with cool weather that the farmers got a very late start. This year we've had a lot of spring rain, but we've also had some sunny days with wind that allowed us to dry some."
Statewide, corn farmers had planted 78 percent of their acres, 12 percent ahead of last year's pace and 14 percent above the five-year average, the Kentucky Agricultural Statistics Service reported last week.
Fifty percent of the corn has emerged, and nearly three-fourths of the crop was rated either good or excellent, the crop-reporting service said.
Across Kentucky, almost three-quarters of the hay crop was considered either good or excellent, the crop-reporting service said.
Many farms in Mercer County already have had a first cutting of hay, Shirley said, and that's important for this time of year.
"Getting that first cutting in early helps with the control of insects, especially in alfalfa," he said.
"We've also seen a lot of tobacco setting already done, and that's keeping with the timetable. Overall, we're in a pretty good position at this point when it comes to getting the ground ready and getting the planting going."
Meanwhile, 8 percent of Kentucky's soybean crop has been planted, barely ahead of last year's pace, the service said. Just a fraction of the state's burley and dark tobacco had been set as of Sunday, it said.
The state's wheat crop was rated 54 percent good, 27 percent excellent, 17 percent fair and 2 percent poor, the report said.
The rising cost of fuel has been one area for pessimism for farmers, Shirley said.
"The latest round of rising fuel prices has hit hard. Obviously, tractors need fuel, but the farmer is used to taking it on the chin in a lot of ways," he said.
"They have to run their tractors to work in the fields, so they've had to bite the bullet and buy the fuel.
"Where I've noticed a big effect is in petroleum-based fertilizers and in shipping costs," he said. "I think we're seeing farmers buy less fertilizer this year because of the cost. If you notice, you aren't seeing nearly as many of the fertilizer wagons going up and down the roads, not like in previous years."
Shirley said cattle farmers are feeling the bite of rising shipping costs.
"With the way fuel has gone up in price, it costs a lot more this year to ship cattle and hogs to market," he said. "It's possible we may see less of that this year, but the fact is, the product has to be moved. It's another case of the farmer going ahead and doing what he has to do, and having to eat the higher costs."
Shirley said fuel costs are projected to continue rising throughout the summer, and they will hit particularly hard as the growing season progresses.
"If they keep going up like is expected, it's going to continue to be a problem," he said. "We'll really see the effect when it comes time to ship produce to market in the fall."
High grain prices have farmers upbeat across the state. Prices for new-crop corn for fall delivery is about $3.10 a bushel, about 50 cents higher than a year ago. Soybean prices are running even higher - about $7.40 a bushel for fall delivery, about $3.10 higher.
For now, the higher grain prices offset the higher production costs caused by fuel price rises. But that's based on optimism about crop yields.
"The weather has been cooperating so far, but you never know in Kentucky," said Shirley. "Too little or too much rain in June and July and we're back behind again. You just can't predict it."
Some information for this story was supplied by the Associated Press.|3/16/04|***