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Tornado won’t derail University of Kentucky ag research efforts

Katy Pratt, University of Kentucky Ag Communications before and after view of the University of Kentucky Princeton research site after a tornado hit Dec. 11
INSTANT DEVASTATION: The University of Kentucky-Princeton research site looked like the serene, modern setting on the left one minute, and utter devastation, on the right, the next. A massive tornado on Dec. 11 destroyed 90% of the buildings at the location.
Plans are already underway to rebuild the UK-Princeton research site.

The once-in-a-lifetime tornadoes that ripped a path of destruction through southern Kentucky in the early morning hours of Dec. 11 didn’t dampen the strength and spirit of Kentucky agriculture. The mammoth tornado which pummeled the University of Kentucky Research and Education Center 1 mile outside of Princeton also didn’t derail the future of Kentucky ag research. Lives were lost, families are hurting, and there are multiple temporary interruptions, but Kentucky agriculture will survive.

That’s the message Chad Lee conveyed loud and clear during an interview with Farm Progress. Lee has served Kentucky as Extension corn specialist for two decades and is director of the Grain and Forage Center of Excellence, housed at the UK Research and Education Center. He captured the feelings of the UK Agriculture family just days after the tornado.

Contemplating the damage

The Princeton location took a direct hit from a tornado that cut a continuous swath over 200 miles long and one-quarter-mile wide at its narrowest point. Most buildings were destroyed or so badly damaged they were condemned. That included the new research and education complex, which opened two years ago.

“It turns out that the largest meeting we ever held there was the ribbon-cutting ceremony,” Lee says. “The pandemic began soon afterward, and we couldn’t hold our normal meetings.”

The center included meeting space, offices and labs for students and professors working at the site. The Princeton location in western Kentucky was home to both crop and animal research.

Lee acknowledges that it was surreal when he drove to the site following the devastation.

“You could see a lot farther because there was no longer anything in the way,” he recalls. “I noticed that the tobacco research barn was still standing, but when I looked closer, something was off. It turns out that the tornado drug it 400 yards, until it slid up against a tree! Researchers use wood chips in the building, and there were still piles of wood chips inside the original foundation, 400 yards away, untouched.”

A path forward

Lee emphasizes that the UK family was blessed, because everyone survived with no or only minor injuries. And if the tornado had changed course by just a mile, destruction and loss of life in downtown Princeton could have been horrific.

However, seven families of employees lost houses. “We appreciated the outpouring of kindness from all over, but we wanted people to know that we didn’t suffer loss of life like so many others, and we don’t want to detract from efforts to help them,” he says. “It is a humbling experience.”

Some research projects were disrupted. Beef cattle on experiments commingled when some fences went down, Lee says. Labs were destroyed, which affects graduate students. The center contained a soil testing service lab that was wiped out, although a similar lab in Lexington still operates.

The commitment to rebuild came swiftly, Lee says. “We’re moving forward,” he insists. “There will be some changes in how we operate short term, and those adjustments are ongoing. But our goal is to provide information, education and services as best as we can. We value Kentucky farmers, our Extension family and employees, and wheels are in motion to move forward.”

To help their short-term needs, keep reading. If you would like to help the seven families of UK-Princeton employees directly affected by the tornado, visit this GoFundMe page.

Farm groups coordinate relief efforts

Often when tragedy strikes, folks in agriculture want to help. But it’s hard to know what to do or where to turn when you’re out of state — or several states away. Following the early December devastation in Kentucky, both on the research farm and beyond, several organizations stepped up to coordinate donations. Even better, you can donate with confidence because this list is both vetted and recommended by UK research station staff:

4-H’ers Helping 4-H’ers Relief Fund. Donate here to help affected 4-H members, families and staff.

Kentucky Agriculture Relief Fund. This GoFundMe account is organized by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Farm Bureau, and tax-deductible donations support farmers and agribusiness.

Kentucky Division of Emergency Management. Donate here or volunteers can apply to help with relief efforts.

UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Discretionary Fund. Give to this fund to donate to tornado victims through the UK Office of Philanthropy

UK Student Basic Needs and Persistence Fund. Donate directly to affected UK students, faculty and staff.

Mail it in. You can also mail checks with a comment of support to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment: UK CAFE Tornado Relief; UK Philanthropy; P.O. Box 23552; Lexington, KY  40523.

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