BATON ROUGE, La. — Dry weather in much of southwest Louisiana has helped rice farmers move heavy equipment into their fields to harvest this year's crop, especially over the past two weeks.
"In the past week, things have been moving along pretty well," said Johnny Saichuk, the LSU AgCenter's rice specialist.
Saichuk and other AgCenter specialists estimate that as much as 60 percent of the rice crop had been harvested by Aug. 12, although there are mixed reports on yields.
One bright spot may be Acadia Parish, where LSU AgCenter County Agent Ronald J. Levy reports a few farmers are harvesting more than 50 barrels of rice per acre. More typical yields are in the high 30s to mid 40s in Acadia, Levy said.
"If rice yields don't drop off, it looks like we may increase the parish average by 500 pounds to 700 pounds an acre," Levy said. Last year, Acadia harvested roughly 6,000 pounds of rice per acre, according to LSU AgCenter statistics.
Statewide, though, Saichuk is not as optimistic about yields.
Cooler weather early in the growing season and heavy cloud cover in early summer slowed the growth cycle of most rice in south Louisiana and could hurt yields, he said.
"I'd expect yields to be a little bit less than last year," said Saichuk. "We had a cooler spring than normal and we didn't get a lot of sunshine. Weather delayed us from planting and threw the crop behind schedule about two weeks."
Saichuk said he was surprised that the delay also delayed harvest until the first week in August. Rice harvest typically starts late July.
The latest estimate by the Louisiana Agricultural Statistics Service is that total acres of rice planted in Louisiana will fall 13 percent this year to 470,000 acres. If that estimate holds up, it will be the fewest acres of rice planted in the state since 1987.
Many farmers cut back on rice production this year because of dismal prices received for the crop in 2002. Prices this year, however, have rallied and are running roughly twice the rate of a year ago.
Acadia and Vermilion parishes illustrate the decline in acres experienced statewide. The Farm Service Agency reported that rice acreage in Acadia Parish will end up at 76,216 acres this year, down 16 percent from a year ago.
In Vermilion, the decline is even more noticeable with only 66,827 acres of rice planted this year, down 22 percent. That is the third lowest acreage planted in rice since 1983, reports Howard Cormier, the LSU AgCenter's county agent in Vermilion Parish.
Vermilion's good news is that yields are generally strong with many farmers reporting 40-plus barrels per acre. "All of this can change quickly with a storm, but right now we have a good crop being brought in on a timely basis without long lines at the mill," Cormier said.
Last year's rice crop was hurt by three tropical storms and heavy fall rains. Average yield per acre statewide was a disappointing 5,772 pounds per acre in 2002, well below the record 5,914 pounds per acre harvested in 2001, according to LSU AgCenter statistics.
Last fall's heavy rains all but wiped out what looked to be a promising second crop, which many farmers generally count on to boost their incomes.
Typically, about 20 percent of the rice acreage in Louisiana is harvested a second time in October after rice has a chance to sprout new growth. Saichuk, Levy and others expect many farmers to try to make a second crop this year to cash in on better rice prices and to make up for what has been a weak soybean crop — at least in south Louisiana.
Randy McClain (225-578-2263 or email@example.com) writes for the LSU AgCenter.