Disaster is headed for agriculture, specifically for rice, and it may already be here, even though the cause is not a hurricane. Input cost of production is or will devastate the industry unless something drastic is done quickly.
Diesel cost for pumping has increased two and a half times in less than a year, a cost that cannot be overcome with increased yield. There is a biological limit to ever-increasing yields. Price of rice has not shown much gain and will not likely increase much until a shortage occurs.
Other costs are higher, too, such as fertilizer, pesticides, aerial application, land preparation and harvesting, all because of high oil prices. Higher hidden costs include grain drying with natural gas and transportation to and from the elevator and mill. These increased costs will most likely be recognized by farmers using co-operatives at final settlement next year.
What can rice farmers do other than look for other means of employment? Changing crops is not the answer because energy cost impacts producing alternative crops, too.
The obvious answer is to plant rice only on rice land with good water-holding capacity and a relatively good supply of irrigation water. This implies fewer acres of rice and/or rice being grown continuously on the same fields.
Much of this land has a red rice problem, and we have been told we will lose the Clearfield/Newpath/Beyond technology because of out-crossing if land is not rotated. Some farmers have bought into this and spent more than $100 per acre this year in extra diesel cost by producing rice on sandier soils.
The question that no one seems able to answer is, “Why have we not developed field after field of improved long grain red rice from out-crossing after 75 or more years of rice production?” Is it because of rotation? Not likely.
Research has established out-crossing at less than 1 percent, but where is the data that indicates how long continuous rice can be grown? Extrapolation is always the culprit in applying research data. The obvious answer is indefinitely if red rice is controlled in the rice crop, and it can be. There are fields with histories of serious red rice problems that are getting better each year with continuous use of Clearfield technology.
Perhaps the emphasis should be on preserving the customer instead of the Clearfield technology. Without the customer there will be no need for the technology.
Water management practices may have to change. For example, flushing instead of flooding except for the critical booting and flowering stages may save money, but that is risky, as is draining early for harvest. Current varieties mature in about the same length of time, but shorter-maturing varieties are on the way.
Income from rotated crops must be increased. The high-dollar land must be planted in something other than rice. Will 60 bushels per acre of wheat and 40 bushels per acre of soybeans equal 150 bushels per acre of rice at current prices? If they do, can yields be consistent?
Wheat following soybeans rather than rice usually produces much better. But what about consistently producing 40 bushels per acre of soybeans double-cropped with wheat? In case of a drought, double-cropped soybean yields will likely be low. Learning how to consistently produce high yields double-cropping will take up some of the slack.
What can industry do? Maybe transferring some advertising money into price reductions would be a good-will effort. Seed companies and pesticide manufacturers might delay receiving back research cost and take a little of the hit for their customers. Lowering prices even a little would be most welcome by farmers.
And then there is big oil. Who are they anyway and how can they get the message? Why can't ethanol and biodiesel become an economical part of agriculture? Action is direly needed now for alternative energy sources for farm use.
What can bankers and lending institutions do? They are already reluctant to take risks by making farm loans. Money people, take more risk. Forget about making a loan in April and expecting full payment in November when sales may not be final until the next year. Longer-term loans for some items such as land leveling and equipment are needed.
What can government do? Cease using agriculture as a bargaining chip for political issues. Sell to any country that has money. Feeding our enemies is noble. Make sales easy. Trade food for oil. Consider more benefits to farmers similar to considerations provided to other segments of the economy.
Will agriculture survive? Sure, as long as food and clothing continue to be necessary. The question is, “Who will be left?” As Ford Baldwin asks, “Is anyone out there besides farmers listening?”
Bobby Huey is a retired Arkansas Extension rice specialist.