Buoyed by higher prices and record 2003 yields, U.S. farmers could plant 3.17 million to 3.23 million acres of rice in 2004 — 6 to 9 percent more than last year, according to Extension rice specialists.

The specialists say they're hearing that 2004 plantings could be up 100,000 to 200,000 acres in some of their states. But they think the similarly higher prices for soybeans and higher fertilizer costs will temper some of that exuberance.

With some farmers already planting rice in Texas and south Louisiana, here's what the specialists foresee for 2004:

  • Arkansas, 1.5 million acres, up 3 percent from last year's 1.45 million acres.

  • California, 550,000 to 575,000 acres, up 12 to 16 percent above 2003's weather-reduced 490,000 acres.

  • Louisiana, 500,000 to 525,000 acres, 12 to 18 percent above 2003's 445,500 acres.

  • Mississippi, 233,000 acres, or equal to last year's acreage.

  • Missouri, 184,000 to 193,000 acres, up 5 to 10 percent from 2003's 175,000 acres.

  • Texas, 200,000 to 205,000 acres, up 12 to 15 percent from 2003's 178,000 acres.

“We're hearing that we could be up as much as 200,000 acres, which would be a record 1.65 million acres,” said Chuck Wilson, Extension agronomist for rice with the University of Arkansas. “I think the increase will be closer to 50,000 acres because of the strong soybean prices. I don't see a huge increase in Arkansas, but I believe there will be an increase.”

Louisiana's rice plantings could go up by as much as 100,000 acres as its rice farmers continue to bask in the glow of the warm feelings left by the 2003 crop, which produced a record 6,100-pound-per-acre yield, and higher prices.

“The prices at the end of last season gave everyone encouragement,” said Johnny Saichuk, rice specialist with the LSU AgCenter. “People are looking forward to planting this year, which is a big change from 2003.”

Saichuk, who is based at the AgCenter's Rice Research Station in Crowley, La., told specialists attending the Valent USA Corp. Rice Seminar in Destin, Fla., that last year's acreage wasn't down as much as he expected, but it was close.

Because of higher production costs and two straight years of poor weather conditions, many Louisiana rice producers had their backs against the wall at this time last year. Another year like 2001 or 2002 could have put many out of business.

“Last year, I said we would be down 100,000 acres, and I was criticized for that prediction,” he said. “It was down 88,000 acres, but our growers had one of their best growing years in a long time.”

Saichuk said Louisiana's rice acreage has risen to as high as 700,000 in some years, but he doesn't expect a return to those levels in 2004.

While Mississippi farmers also enjoyed good yields and good prices in 2003, its rice specialists don't expect a significant increase in acreage this spring.

“Until soybeans hit $9 a bushel, I thought we would be up 5 to 10 percent in 2004,” said Joe Street, the former Extension rice specialist for Mississippi State University. “Now I think it will either be the same or go down. “$9 a bushel for soybeans is just too tempting for our growers.”

Street, recently named interim director of the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center, said Mississippi growers may switch some of their acreage to Group 4 soybeans to try to capture a premium for August delivery.

Missouri's rice acreage has been declining for the last three years from a high of 211,000 in 2001 to last year's 175,000, said Bruce Beck, agronomy specialist with the University of Missouri.

“We had very good weather through harvest last season and produced a record yield of 6,150 pounds and excellent milling quality,” said Beck, who is based in Poplar Bluff, Mo. “Our farmers have continued to grade their land and improve their production practices although acreage has been declining.

“With higher prices, we think our acres could be back up 5 to 10 percent.”

Texas growers could plant between 200,000 and 205,000 acres in 2004, an increase of 22,000 to 27,000 acres above sharply reduced plantings in 2003. Texas growers have planted as high as 345,000 acres (in 1994), but have reduced plantings because of low prices and water problems in recent years.

“We expect a rebound in our acreage this year because of a change in outlook on the part of landowners,” said Garry McCauley, an agronomist with the Texas Cooperative Extension Service based in Eagle Lake, Texas. “From 75 to 80 percent of our growers are tenant farmers so landowners control much of what we do.”

After a less than auspicious start last spring, California growers enjoyed good harvest weather and better yields than they expected. With those yields and higher medium grain prices, farmers are expected to plant more rice this spring — weather permitting.

“We had a cool, wet spring that forced growers to delay planting last spring,” said Chris Greer, rice farm advisor with the University of California. “The way we started out last spring made a lot of people very nervous.

“We had a very hot month of July, and heading was occurring 10 to 14 days earlier than usual. Then we had one of the best harvest seasons in several years. Yields were probably about average compared to the last 10 years, but, given what it looked like last spring, farmers were happy with outcome.”

Water also played a role in last year's reduced acreage and could do so again in 2004. “Part of last year's lower plantings were due to weather, but part was because some growers sold their water to cities in southern California,” Greer notes. “With higher prices, growers may elect to keep more of their water for rice.”

USDA put California's 2003 harvested acreage at 495,000, but “all of our numbers say 490,000 acres, which was definitely a decrease from 540,000 in 2002,” says Greer. “We think we could go above 2002 this year and maybe closer to 575,000 acres.”


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