Dozens of agricultural leaders from throughout Louisiana met recently in New Orleans to discuss ways to help make the state’s agricultural industry competitive in the 21st century.

“When we think of New Orleans, probably the first thing that comes to mind for most people is food, but few people stop and think about the major role of agriculture in this city,” said Steve Mullen, LSU AgCenter regional director and one of the planners of the meeting.

Though the meeting was planned with the future in mind, the current state of agriculture and its problems could not be ignored.

“This is the largest agricultural challenge that we’ve ever faced in Louisiana, and right at harvest,” said Mike Strain, Louisiana commissioner of agriculture and forestry. “Every area of the state was affected either by rain, wind or hail,” he said of the challenges Louisiana farmers face in the wake of storm damage from hurricanes Fay, Gustav and Ike.

Strain outlined the role that his department played during the recent storms and discussed the impact of the storms on Louisiana agriculture.

He discussed the trips he made to Washington following the storms. While he did get to discuss the agriculture situation with people who could help, Strain learned the recent farm bill never anticipated a disaster that affected an entire state.

“Right now, 60 percent of the country’s grain exports go through New Orleans,” Strain said. “The port of south Louisiana is the busiest in the United States and the third busiest in the world.”

Other program participants included Tim Ryan, chancellor of the University of New Orleans; Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association; Bobby Landry, director of marketing for New Orleans Port Commission; Jim Monroe, assistant to the president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau; Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board; and Lynn Kennedy and Kurt Guidry, agricultural economists with the LSU AgCenter.

Monroe said this year’s hurricanes did more damage to Louisiana’s agriculture industry than most people realize. “This could have been one of the best years ever for Louisiana agriculture, had we not seen the hurricanes,” he said.