Rice may set a state record average yield this year and be the bright spot across Mississippi’s drought-stricken farmland if early harvest rates continue.

Nathan Buehring, rice specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said harvest started at the end of August and early yields are promising.

“Everything so far looks good to excellent,” Buehring said. “Our expectations weren’t as high as what we’re seeing in the fields. Yields look to be above average and are a lot better than I thought they would be since we had such excessive heat.”

Hot weather can prevent the rice kernel from forming, a condition called blanking. Nighttime temperatures above 75 degrees are worse for the rice than daytime temperatures above 95 degrees. The state had many days and nights above those thresholds, but the rice crop does not seem to have been hurt by it.

Rice needs a lot of sunshine to fill out kernels, and Buehring speculated that the numerous sunny days may have offset the high temperatures.

What did hurt this year were energy and fertilizer prices. Rice uses nitrogen, a petroleum-based fertilizer, and costs for this input have continued to rise in recent years. Energy costs to run pumps to flood rice fields were up dramatically.

“We did not have any rain to help keep some of these fields flooded,” Buehring said. “Water expenses have been above average as we got no reprieve from the drought.”

Don Respess, Bolivar County Extension director, said the excellent early yields in the north Delta have rice producers feeling optimistic.

“It’s real encouraging to me because everything else has been very depressed,” Respess said.

Growers struggled to keep enough water on the fields. They rarely got the assistance of rain, and although they tried to conserve energy and keep costs down, many had to run their irrigation pumps nearly all the time, he said.

Stink bugs caused problems in scattered fields, but disease was not a problem this year because of the clear, hot weather conditions. Respess said rice acres dropped to 52,000 in Bolivar County, where 75,000 acres is typical. The expected good yields this year should help bring that number up again next year, he said.

Rice prices had been in the $10 per hundredweight range, but recent news of the discovery of genetically modified traits in some commercial rice shipments sent the price below $9 per hundredweight. Growers need about $10 per hundredweight to break even.

Steve Martin, Extension agricultural economist at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, said several countries are deciding whether or not to accept U.S. rice exports after the discovery of the herbicide-resistant rice variety.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the rice trade associations and rice industry suppliers are working diligently to determine how the modified rice got into the rice supply as well as to develop an efficient way of testing future shipments,” Martin said. “Currently, not a lot is known about the outcome of this situation. This rice variety has not been grown in several years, so it is unknown exactly how the variety has shown up recently.”