In most seasons, near-record yields and low disease pressure would translate into profits for south Louisiana rice producers. But not in 2000. Dry weather resulted in significant acreage never being planted this year. And where growers did get rice planted, irrigation and pumping costs more than offset the savings from not having to make fungicide applications.
Final figures haven't been completed yet on rice yields, according to Extension rice specialist Johnny Saichuk. "But we suspect we're going to be very close to a record yield. Second crop yields, about 20 percent of our acreage, are a mixed bag, from very poor to very good."
However, the big story in the state is the high percentage of prevented plantings in south Louisiana due to salt water intrusion and/or a stunning lack of rainfall.
In four south Louisiana parishes, prevented plantings amounted to a little over 30 percent of expected acreage. Rice acreage in Vermilion Parish dropped from 99,800 acres in 1999 to 62,700 in 2000; Jefferson Davis dropped from 89,900 to 76,300 acres; Calcasieu from 24,000 to 14,700 acres; and Cameron, 14,600 to 5,200.
Growers ended up not planting anything on that acreage, according to Saichuk, and are how hoping for some level of disaster relief. "If they don't get it, a lot of them will be in a serious financial situation."
The acreage reduction could spill over into 2001 unless more typical rainfall patterns return. Saichuk noted that Louisiana has not had a single month of double-digit rainfall since September 1998, when the tropical storm Frances dropped 8.6 inches of rain on the region in three days and around 12 inches for the month. The region's 24-month rainfall ending September, 2000 was 73 inches, compared to an average of 120 inches.
"To really get things going again, we're going to need 2-3 double-digit rainfall months. We're going to need 12 inches of rain each month during November, December and January. We're way behind normal."
The state's high yielding 2000 crop was due to two things, according to the specialist. "One, in a dry year, we have less disease. Two, improved varieties. Cocodrie had improved yields of about 500 pounds an acre over Cypress."
Cypress remains the number one variety in the state, planted on about 54 percent of the acreage. But Cocodrie is gaining, planted on 34 percent of the acreage in 2000. "I still think we are going to see an increase in Cocodrie next year at the expense of Cypress. Cocodrie doesn't mill quite as well, but Cypress has been the yardstick for milling and will continue to be."
The cost of controlling diseases was significantly less than in previous years due to the dry weather, but those savings were more than offset by the higher costs of pumping water, according to Saichuk. "Typical irrigation costs on rice will be from 15-22 percent of the cost of producing the crop. We easily added 10-15 percent to that. That's 37 percent of your production costs, a very significant percentage."
Early on, fuel costs to pump irrigation water were not too high, "and growers who had contracted to buy large amounts of fuel early were not hurt. But later in the season as the price of fuel went up and those contracts expired, we did have higher costs and higher usage.
"We definitely did not produce a cheaper crop," said Saichuk. "The stink bugs just about ate us out of house and home in some areas. Weed control problems were typical. In the northeast area, where they drilled some rice, they probably saved a little money because they used Command."
Milling yields, "were not as good as last year, but overall, it was not a bad year."
Saichuk added that many Louisiana farmers are becoming increasingly concerned about current and pending environmental regulations. "For instance, the EPA is talking about treating rice as a point-source rather than a non-point source of pollution (for water quality regulations). If those types of things go into place, that would be the coup de grace. Farmers will not be able to survive these times of adversity with those types of regulations imposed on them."
In central and northeast Arkansas, early-planted rice, "was probably close to a record yield," according to Extension rice specialist Nathan Slaton. "But rice planted the first week of May and later headed out during early August, when daytime temperatures were above 98 percent most of the time. That rice just got hammered. The yields were poor, the milling yields were poor."
In addition, Slaton says he has heard very few positive comments about the southeast Arkansas crop. "For whatever reason, even the early crop had a relatively off year."
Originally, USDA had projected the second highest yield ever for Arkansas growers. "Personally, I think our average yield will be similar to last year, 5900 to 5,950 pounds, something like that. That's still good rice."
In Mississippi, where rice acreage is down 30 percent from last year, yields generally are better than in 1999, according to Extension rice specialist Joe Street. Disease pressure was not severe, but Street reports that stinkbug pressure is the worst he can remember.
Lemont was grown on 60 percent of the acreage; Priscilla, 27 percent; Cypress, 5 percent; Cocodrie, 4 percent; and limited acreage of Wells, Jefferson and XL6.