Farmers at a mid-February hearing told U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana and Mike Strain, Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry, that large areas of cropland may not be planted this year along the coast because of salt water remaining from Hurricane Ike.

They voiced their concerns at a Farm Day Forum held by Boustany in Abbeville, La. More than 100 people attended.

Some estimated that as much as 30,000 acres of land will be idle this year in southern Vermilion Parish, and Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent, said that figure could be correct.

“We’ve still got water on agriculture land, and there’s no place for it to go,” said Sherrill Sagrera, Vermilion Parish farmer.

Linda Zaunbrecher of Gueydan, La., said water in canals that normally would be used for irrigating rice fields remains contaminated by salt from Ike. “We’re experiencing that along the entire coast. We have not had enough rainfall to flush that salt out.”

Farmer Clarence Berken said a water control structure damaged by Ike has allowed salt water to continue to infiltrate inland. He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assured him it would be repaired by Feb. 1, but that hasn’t yet happened.

Boustany said he thought that problem had been fixed and would follow up.

The forum was called to brief farmers on changes in farm policy with the new farm bill.

Tom Sell, a lobbyist and consultant from Washington, D.C., told the crowd that federal spending on farm programs in 2007 was $22.4 billion out of the total farm bill spending of $88.8 billion. More than $50 billion was spent on food and nutrition programs.

Sell said spending on farm programs is unfairly criticized and its value for boosting the economy unappreciated. “I would submit there’s no better economic stimulus than farm programs,” he said. “I don’t think you get a better return on an investment than farm programs.”

Boustany agreed. “If you really want to stimulate the economy, you look at the agricultural economy. How else are we going to stimulate the economy in our rural communities?”

Buck Vandersteen, director of the Louisiana Forestry Association, said efforts to add research funds to the federal stimulus package were removed. He said research money creates jobs and adds to the economy. “We need to make sure our land-grant universities are adequately funded,” he said.

e-mail: bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu