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Mid-South rice harvest ends with questions

Having nearly completed harvest, Mid-South rice producers will soon focus on bottom lines, securing loans and next year's planting decisions.

“We're about to wrap things up,” said Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “Most folks will be through cutting by (the first week of November). We're somewhere around 98 to 99 percent done.

“It's still taking a long time to get some of the lodged rice out. I've heard reports of producers cutting 10 acres a day. It's hard to make any progress when you're moving so slowly.”

The yields in Arkansas aren't bad. “They aren't as good as last year, but we'll take them because of all the adversity recently.”

Due to the effects of Hurricane Rita, the Missouri Bootheel also had some downed rice. Still, harvest has been easier than in states to the south. “The last couple weeks (of October) have been very dry here,” said Brian Ottis, Missouri Extension rice specialist. “We're probably 90 percent done now with harvest.”

Rice acreage in Missouri is up as much as 20,000 acres. “Some are saying we're at 212,000 to 216,000 acres. We were at 196,000 last year.”

Based on the few growers he's spoken with, Ottis said yields are below what they were last year but are running about average. “I'm hearing about 150 bushels per acre. That's not bad — there wasn't a lot of stinkbug pressure this year. Disease pressure was average, at best.”

Ottis said there's “some talk” about current rice acres switching to soybeans due to fuel costs. Because of water availability and fewer labor needs, “our cost of production is typically lower here than further south. But no one can escape the fuel costs and that's why I think rice acreage will drop next year. But that's strictly opinion.”

In Louisiana, there is much less uncertainty. “Oh, yeah, our rice acreage is going to be down,” said Johnny Saichuk, Louisiana Extension rice specialist. “And that's after what we believe will be a record first-crop yield. That's incredible! One farm leader told me this morning, ‘Here we are with a record crop and still can't pay the bills.’ That's a sad statement about the current economy.”

For Louisiana's second rice crop, about 58,000 acres were planned. After Katrina and Rita, producers may salvage 15,000 acres.

“That is quite a hit. But the 58,000 acres was already down considerably. Usually, we have closer to 100,000 acres — about a fifth of our total acreage — for the second crop.”

Some of the poor second crop rice still in the field is “going to stay there,” said Saichuk. “Some of our farmers just don't have the heart to go out and scrap. With fuel costs and the incredible devastation all around it isn't worth bothering with.”

One of the biggest things south Louisiana producers could face is salt in their soils. “We've done some preliminary soil sampling and will do more shortly. Depending on what we find in the soil, some of our rice producers may not be able to plant a crop next year even if they wanted to.”

The saltwater came in with the hurricanes. “The hurricanes moved it inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Saltwater washed over a lot of our acres — mostly in Vermilion, Jeff Davis, Calcasieu and Cameron parishes — and stayed. We're going to have to do a more thorough evaluation of how much salt there is and how deep in the soil it goes. After we find that out, we'll work up a remediation plan for those who need it.”

For the more fortunate, fresh marsh water came in ahead of the saltwater. In those areas, even though fields were flooded, the water wasn't as salty.

Saichuk advises patience until the full picture is known. “What I don't want is to scare producers into premature action. There is salt, but there's no reason for anyone to go out and start working on this until we have the samples and data together. In some areas, a good rain may be enough to push the salt off. We'll see.”

No one, said the Louisiana specialist, can afford to pump well-water and flush their fields.

“I talked to a farmer last night who has a bad situation. He farms rice on land below sea level that was reclaimed decades ago. A really good perimeter levee was built to protect the land.”

When hurricane waters rolled over the levee in a “big gulp, there was no way for it to get back out. That land wasn't set up to take 8 feet of water. It acted like a big bowl.”

As all the pumping and power units were underwater, there was no way to pump the floodwater out. “They had to use big track-hoes and cut that old, reliable levee to drain. Doing that didn't solve the problem entirely. Some of the farmer's power units are still underwater.”

The current mood in south Louisiana's rice industry is “very somber. We had a meeting last night with about 75 to 80 producers in the lower Vermilion Parish area. Even sitting on top of record yields, they stayed really quiet. People are wondering and worried about what they'll do.

“One young farmer said, ‘What else am I going to do? I've got to start prepping fields for next year with the intention of farming. But I don't know if I'm doing the right thing.’

“Unfortunately, I don't know either.”


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