The 2002 Mid-South rice crop will be remembered for record yields, a long harvest season and unfortunately, extremely low prices. Here's more on the situation from state rice specialists:

Louisiana rice producers could harvest one of their highest-yielding crops ever this year, but low prices are throwing a wet blanket over the achievement.

“This is the first time that I can feel some real serious anxiety out there,” said Extension rice specialist Johnny Saichuk, Rice Research Station in Crowley, La. “It's not just some farmers complaining. There is some real fear.”

According to the specialist, Louisiana will harvest an average of 5,800 pounds per acre this year, about 400 pounds over USDA's latest estimate.

Yields will be this high despite the fact that Louisiana's ratoon rice crop could be reduced by 30 to 70 percent due to torrential rains and wind which fell in late September and early October.

A majority of the damage to the second crop is directly due to lodging and rice sprouting in the field. “I heard of one farmer who was cutting at 12 barrels (one barrel is 162 pounds) before the storm and went back in the same field after the storm and was harvesting about 6 barrels.”

Louisiana rice producers are not only suffering from low prices, but typically have higher production costs and lower yields than other U.S. growing regions. The low prices could result in much of the second crop being abandoned.

In addition, “Next year, some farmers are not going to be able to farm because they won't be able to cash flow,” Saichuk said. “The banks aren't going to lend them the money. Some of them will be looking to get out because they're tired of taking the beating.”

Saichuk is expecting a 25 percent to 35 percent reduction in rice acreage for Louisiana in 2003. That would push acreage close to 440,000 acres, the lowest since 1987. “That's pretty scary. It's going to affect the landowners, too. They're going to have give some concessions to these farmers to keep them in business, or we'll see landowners just take the payments and let it go at that. But that's not something that we want to see happen.”

Cocodrie was the most popular variety in Louisiana in 2002, at 53.5 percent of the acreage, followed by Cypress, at 32 percent, Wells, around 8 percent, and Clearfield CL 121, 2 percent.

Mississippi

Mississippi expected to harvest a record for rice yield this year, but late rains probably reduced the potential to some degree, according to Mississippi Extension rice specialist Joe Street.

The effect of the rains has been to drag out harvest and expose rice to more bad weather. A lot of the unharvested crop “went down or lodged,” according to Street. “That will make it harder to harvest. Some of this rice that went down went under water, and it rotted. It's also stayed wet so long that it's sprouted in the field, which will reduce the quality.”

As of the end of October, 8 percent to 10 percent of the state's rice crop had not been harvested.

Arkansas

Arkansas is expected to harvest a record crop for yield at 6,450 pounds per acre, but as in Mississippi, getting those few acres out of the field has proved exasperating.

Rain and wind during the first week of October put a lot of rice on the ground, according to Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “At that time, there was still 10 percent to 15 percent in the field. Since then, it's been slow and now we're down to 3 percent to 4 percent unharvested.”

On the other hand, “yields from late-harvested rice won't drop enough to make a difference in the overall state production,” Wilson said.

One factor that contributed to good yield was mild weather during the growing season, according to Wilson. “It didn't get extremely hot during critical growth stages. We also had a relatively disease-free year. Sheath blight is always a chronic problem, but blast was not as bad a problem as we anticipated.”

Good varieties also helped, according to Wilson. “We have 42 percent of our acres in Wells and 28 percent in Cocodrie. These are varieties that do better than varieties of five to 10 years ago. We also caught some rains periodically during the growing season and this helped those who might have been behind to catch up.”

Southeast Missouri

The Missouri Bootheel rice crop is almost harvested and rice producers are expected to harvest a record yield, according to Bruce Beck, Extension agronomy specialist, University of Missouri, Poplar Bluff, Mo. “The milling yields seem to be as good as ever.”

Beck says good moisture through July through most of the area contributed to the good yields. “Farmers were able to do things more timely. Then it got real dry. So with water at the feet of the plant and dry above, that was good for both yield and quality.”

Loose smut was a problem, “but it hasn't really hurt us much,” Beck said.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.