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After Katrina: Mississippi rice harvest moves ahead

To many, it may seem a small thing. But since Hurricane Katrina blew through the state, Mississippi’s rice farmers have had good harvest weather.

“Right now, we’ll take blessings any way we can get them,” said Nathan Buehring, Mississippi Extension rice specialist. “The storm blew out on a Monday night and some growers were back in the field cutting the following Wednesday.

“At first, it was a little muddy. Since then, though, it’s dried out — good, hot weather with a north wind blowing. We’re not rutting out as much rice as I thought we would.”

Immediately following the hurricane, Buehring said it was unlikely any of the state’s rice had escaped unscathed. “The lucky ones have only a small percentage down… I’m surprised so much rice is still standing. Some areas had winds of 70 miles per hour. And for 12 hours straight winds across much of the state were gusting at 50 miles per hour. It was a storm unlike any I’ve ever been through and I wasn’t even on the coast where they took the brunt.”

Some producers — mostly in the south Delta area — had 80 to 90 percent of their rice downed. Having harvested 2 percent of the rice crop before the hurricane’s arrival, the state was “lucky” that only between 40 and 50 percent of the crop overall was the ground, said Buehring.

As Katrina’s destructive handiwork emerged, Beuhring’s biggest concern was length of harvest. Harvesting downed rice means “triple the time, triple the diesel fuel and labor expenses. This is going to be an even more expensive crop for the growers. It’s trouble when you go from cutting 40 acres per day to 10 or 15.”

Some 10 days after the hurricane, worries about a slow harvest remained. Producers with downed rice were losing 10 to 20 percent of their yields to the ground.

“I still don’t have a good feel for what yields will be. One field just cut about 170 bushels per acre green. At least 40 percent to 50 percent of it was down.

Some of the rice being cut is a little green. “But that’s the trade-off producers are willing to make. At the end of harvest they’ll be cutting a little too dry.”

In downed rice, Buehring sees some combines moving a bit faster than they should. “That’s understandable, though — there are a lot of acres left out there. And even with that little extra speed, they’re still cutting very, very slow.”

In one field he worked, it took Buehring and colleagues almost two days to cut 35 acres with a single combine with a 24-foot stripper header.

“That should give an indication how slow things are moving. Per combine, in downed fields, producers are probably getting 20 acres a day. Farmers running draper headers aren’t losing as much time. However, they’re still running a lot of straw through the combine. The wear-and-tear on equipment is undeniable.”

A concern even before the hurricane, high diesel costs are hurting producers. Even so, Buehring said it could be worse. Many stocked up on diesel right before Hurricane Katrina hit.

“A lot of growers bought enough diesel to get through harvest. So they aren’t taking the full, post-hurricane hit at the pump like other folks are. Fuel expenses are still hard to handle, though. That problem hasn’t gone away.”

Right now, Buehring isn’t hearing about a lot of backed up elevators. “I’m not sure about river barge traffic. It may be slow and we haven’t cut enough to really get backed up.”

If the hurricane had hit at the end of September, the truck lines and storage pressures at elevators would be “much worse. At that time, we’d be moving a lot of our early crop to make room for the late crop. From what I’ve seen and heard, we’re beginning to get some river traffic moving. I’m told things will be up to speed in the next couple or three weeks.”

Even facing obstacles, Mississippi is set for a decent crop, said the specialist.

“I hope I’m wrong, but don’t think we’ll set any yield records. It wouldn’t surprise me if the late crop is better than the early. Early in the season, we fought conditions trying to get the crop to grow. Then it turned hot — some of the early crop faced temperatures running 95 to 100 degrees. So it could turn out our late crop will be better.”


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