Farmer Jeffrey Sylvester of Whiteville, La., gazed over a field that looked more suited for water-skiing than growing rice. “There’s a rice crop under that water,” he said. “That’s all standing rice.”
Draining the field means that water will flow onto an adjacent field where mature rice is under water and barely above water.
Rice usually thrives in a flooded field — but not at harvest time and not with water that submerges the crop.
Sylvester, who farms in St. Landry and Avoyelles parishes with his brothers and son, said the area received more than 20 inches of rain. More than 4,000 acres of the family’s rice crop was flooded.
“We’re just praying that the water goes down,” Sylvester said.
He estimated that at least 1,000 acres of rice will be a total loss. Rice seed that has sprouted can be sold for animal feed, but spoiled rice is worthless, he said.
“Right now we’re just hoping we can harvest enough to pay off our farm loans,” Sylvester said.
Before Hurricane Gustav, Sylvester said, the rice crop was one of the best ever, but the input costs were the highest.
He said some of the harvested rice sat in bins without power for drying for several days before power was restored.
In some areas, high winds stripped rice from panicles. In one field near Basil, La., Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist, estimated loss at 50 percent.
Keith Fontenot, LSU AgCenter county agent in Evangeline Parish, said many soybean producers in the area, including the Sylvesters, have bean fields underwater. Fontenot said the soybean crop will be determined by rainfall in the next few weeks.
The LSU AgCenter estimates that Louisiana rice farmers suffered a loss of $29 million, 7.6 percent of the crop’s estimated value, and the losses of soybeans total $60.8 million, almost 15 percent of the crop’s value.
Sugarcane also took a beating, and LSU AgCenter estimates peg the total statewide loss at $72.5 million of the $583 million crop value.
Bernard Laviolette Jr. of Coteau Holmes, La., said his 625 acres of cane were knocked down, making for more difficult harvest. He said he has yet to finish planting, and waiting for the ground to dry from 14 inches of rain will take a while.
He said some cane stalks were broken.
His father, Bernard Laviolette Sr., also of Coteau Holmes, estimated 20 to 30 percent of his son’s crop will be lost. He said he has seen worse storm damage during his 46 years of farming, citing Hurricane Lili of 2002.
Al Guidry, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Martin Parish, said some of the cane has recovered and is more upright, but a decrease in sugar is inevitable.
He said grinding season is set to start Sept. 30, but that could be pushed back.
“Already, we’re just keeping our heads above water because the price is down,” Guidry said.
Guidry said the worst damage appeared to be in the Catahoula area, where the cane had grown the tallest.
Jimmy Flanagan, LSU AgCenter county agent in Iberia Parish, said soybean harvest had begun in his area. Bean fields not ready for harvest face a difficult period, he said. “I’m afraid a lot of those beans might end up wilting. There are a lot of problems out there.”
Flanagan said it’s possible that sugarcane planting could be accomplished before grinding is scheduled to begin in St. Mary Parish on Oct. 1. “If they can get three weeks of good weather, they can get it planted.”
The Durand brothers in St. Martin Parish harvested rice around the clock until the night before the storm. They stored several trailer loads of rice in a nearby sugar warehouse until the weather subsided, and they could put the crop into their bins for drying.
“We were unloading rice until midnight before the hurricane,” said Jeff Durand.
He estimates 1,200 acres of rice were under water and could be lost.