Rice is among the many Louisiana agricultural commodities hurt by Hurricane Gustav, although the majority of the crop had been harvested in the southwest Louisiana rice belt before the storm came through.
“Our estimates are that only 10 percent to 15 percent of the crop was still in the field in the major rice parishes of the southwest,” said Steve Linscombe, rice breeder and director of the LSU AgCenter’s Southwest Region.
“Unfortunately, a substantial amount of this rice was in the areas where the hurricane impacts were more severe, such as St. Martin, St. Landry and Evangeline parishes.”
The high winds damaged the rice by shattering the grains off the heads and causing the plants to fall over — called lodging — which inhibits harvest.
“Perhaps the most severe damage is a result of the excessive rainfall associated with the passing of this storm,” Linscombe said. “These effects are being felt throughout south, central as well as northeast Louisiana.”
In the northeast Louisiana rice-growing region, only about 20 percent of the crop had been harvested before the storm. In many areas rainfall amounts approached 20 inches, Linscombe said.
“We have received several reports of rice totally under water. If the water recedes quickly enough, this rice will be salvageable, but certainly yield and quality will be reduced. If the water does not get off these fields in a timely manner, this rice will actually begin to sprout, and many fields may not be worth harvesting,” Linscombe said.
He said he received a message from a north Louisiana rice farmer looking for combine “tracks,” which are similar to those used on a bulldozer or a tank, except they only replace the larger tires at the front of the combine. The smaller (steering tires) are left, as is, on the rear of the machine.
“This illustrates another major hurricane-related issue. Rice is harvested by large self-propelled combines that cut the stalks, thresh the grain from the heads and send the grain to a storage hopper. They then expel the remaining vegetation out of the back of the machine. These combines typically run on wide, high-flotation tires that can handle fairly wet field conditions,” Linscombe said.
Much of the rice in central and north Louisiana, however, is grown on heavy clay soils that are extremely boggy. Normally, a rice farmer will wait until these fields are dry enough to harvest with combines with tires, even if they must delay harvest a few days. Unfortunately, they will not have that luxury this year. This extreme amount of rain and subsequent backwater will take a long time to get off many of these fields.
Also, many of these fields were at harvest maturity when the storm passed through the state. To salvage what is left of the crop, these fields will have to be harvested as soon as the water recedes.
“That is why producers are looking for combine tracks,” Linscombe said. “Tracks provide much more flotation and allow a combine to harvest boggy conditions with less chance of getting stuck in the field. These combine tracks will be in high demand this year.”
Another issue being dealt with in north Louisiana is that several rice-drying and storage facilities are being threatened by rising floodwaters.
“Sandbagging is occurring to minimize this threat. Initial estimates are that the storm will cause a cumulative loss of 20 percent to 30 percent of the north Louisiana rice crop. We can only hope that these estimates are on the high side,” Linscombe said.
Another issue many rice growers are dealing with is the loss of electric power.
“While this is a substantial inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residents, it can be devastating to a rice farmer,” Linscombe said. “This is because rice is typically harvested at a fairly high grain moisture.”
The harvested rice must be artificially dried to a safe storage moisture. A large amount of rice was harvested in the last few days before the passage of this storm, and this rice was put into drying facilities.
“A worst case scenario is to lose electric power and not be able to dry high grain moisture rice for several days after harvest,” Linscombe said. “Under these conditions the rice will heat up in the bin and can suffer substantial quality reductions and, in some cases, become worthless. That is why many farmers were scrambling to find large generators to at least provide some air movement through this rice until power is restored, and the rice can be properly dried.”