BATON ROUGE, La. — Slightly cooler weather and not enough sunshine have slowed the growth of much of Louisiana's rice crop so far this spring — keeping plants smaller than normal and causing a few more worry lines on farmers' brows.

"We're about two weeks behind where we should be. Many rice plants are reduced in height," said Johnny Saichuk, an Extension rice specialist at the LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station in Crowley, La.

"Most of these plants should be brushing my knees, but they're barely reaching the tops of my boots," Saichuk said while sloshing through a flooded rice field in Vermilion Parish on May 13.

It's too early to make predictions on yield and quality, but rice farmers are battling to bring in a good crop this year to take advantage of a slight upward bump in prices caused by healthy rice exports to Brazil and war-torn Iraq.

Gene Johnson, an LSU AgCenter economist, reported May 13 that long grain rice was selling for as much as $8.49 per barrel — up 15 cents a barrel compared to May 6.

"Export sales to Brazil and Iraq have turned the long grain market bullish," Johnson said. The LSU AgCenter economist said total U.S. rice shipments to Iraq have reached 47,000 metric tons — although he warned there is a lot of pressure from the United Nations to buy more rice destined for Iraq from Asian producers rather than U.S. producers.

Saichuk, the Extension rice specialist, made his remarks about the 2003 Louisiana rice crop's status after touring LSU AgCenter verification rice fields in Allen, Vermilion, Beauregard and Jefferson Davis parishes. Verification fields are those in which growers work closely with AgCenter specialists and county agents to make the right moves in planting, herbicide use, fertilizer treatments and pest control.

As for other observations, fields treated with insecticides, such as Karate, are seeing good control of the rice water weevil, LSU AgCenter specialists said. Generally, by mid-May, rice plants and their root systems are so well-established that the presence of adult weevils and even larvae in the roots is no longer considered a huge threat. Rice water weevils do most of their damage to younger rice plants.

Rice farmers, particularly in parishes such as Vermilion and Calcasieu, also are hoping for more rainfall to help dilute possible saltwater intrusion in the lower Mermentau Basin.

In recent days, county agents have reported salt water creeping farther into the canal systems that link the Vermilion River with the Gulf of Mexico and, in some cases, coming dangerously near rice fields.

LSU AgCenter county agent Howard Cormier of Abbeville, La., said the presence of salt water in canals has many rice farmers in Vermilion Parish skittish.

Saichuk also said the problem cropped up the previous week when stronger-than-normal southerly and southeasterly winds pushed salt water up the Vermilion River into the canals that many rice farmers use for irrigation.

"We're very vulnerable," said R. Ernest Girouard Jr., head of the Louisiana Rice Research Board. Girouard has a farm near Kaplan, La. He said most farmers are keeping a close watch on the skies — hoping for rain to dilute the salinity that can harm rice plants.

"I've got salt water 2 miles from my place," Girouard said May 13.

But Saichuk said he doesn't believe the saltwater problems will be as severe as they were two years ago at the height of a severe drought — although he explained that a lack of rain means farmers have to pump more water from the ground or canals to wet their fields.

"We'll see intermittent problems, but nothing like two years ago," Saichuk said.

There's also time for a much-needed growth spurt to boost this year's rice crop, he said.

"We need some warmer weather at night and more sun," Saichuk said

Randy McClain (225-578-2263 or ramcclain@agcenter.lsu.edu) writes for the LSU AgCenter.