An excellent year for rice yields and higher rice prices could have arrived a couple of years earlier, but the point is, they're here today. That was reason enough for optimism among Mid-South rice producers attending the USA Rice Outlook Conference, in Biloxi, Miss.

“Real good,” said a smiling Lenny Hensgens, who farms in southwest Louisiana and southeast Arkansas, when asked about his 2003 rice crop. “We had good yields, good quality and good prices. So we feel like we're on top of the world right now.”

A year of profitability will help many farmers “get out of the bind that most have been in from two poor years in a row,” Hensgens said. “If we can get another good year, most of the farmers will be out of the woods financially, and it will help us stay in business for a good while.”

Hensgens, who will plant his 55th rice crop in 2004, will keep his rice acres about the same as in 2003, preferring to stick to his rotations. “Once we get those rotations set up, it's not really advantageous to make any changes.”

When asked what he thought of the good rice crop he produced, Branch, La., rice producer Jackie Loewer, noted, “It was time. We had a couple of years of bad production and bad prices. Then Lili hit us in the fall and hurt the second crop. We got up limping, a lot of farmers cut back a lot on acreage, but we didn't look back and went after it.”

By the time harvest had concluded this fall, Loewer had a better-than-average yielding crop and an average miller. While prices have come up a long way, “when you look over the last 20 years, we're still at an average price,” Loewer said. “It's relatively high, but it's not at any record level. We've been in the valley so long that the hill looks like a mountain.”

Good weather was one factor for the good Louisiana rice crop, which averaged 6,100 pounds per acre, statewide. “But we've also had a continued increase in the capacity of our varieties to yield well,” Loewer said. “So in a good year, you're going to do well. Also our breeding programs have to keep improving just to keep pace with costs.”

Loewer will stick with his usual rice acreage in 2004. “Our crop mix stays relatively the same. We don't have a lot of options, we go mainly beans and rice.”

Loewer “will probably be more aggressive in pricing next year's rice crop, knowing that prices will tail off. We're not doing that now. All the demand factors that have caused the run-up have been satisfied, and we'll just have to see what happens between now and next winter.”

If rice prices start to drift back down next fall, Loewer will “manage and try to live within our resources. And when you have years like this, make sure that you build up a cushion to survive the down years.”

Tony Wilkie, a rice producer from Forrest City, Ark., reported good quality on his 450 acres of rice, thanks in part to dry September weather. “Harvest was smooth, yields were the best I've ever had, 145 bushels to 155 bushels.”

Wilkie won't be planting as much rice next as he planted this year, “simply because of rotation.”

Wilkie and his landlord, Henri Wedell of Memphis, plan on continuing a unique lease agreement in 2004, where Wedell pays the cost of producing Wilkie's crop, while Wilkie plants, makes applications and harvests the crop. In return, Wedell receives 60 percent of the crop and the government check while Wilkie receives 40 percent.

Belzoni, Miss., rice producer Willard Jack reported above-average yields, a good harvest and good milling on his 350 acres of rice in 2003. “With the increased price, it will end up a profitable year, which is very good for us. It's been a while.”

To keep treading water during the tough times, Jack noted, “We've been very fortunate to have new varieties to help us keep our yields up when our price per bushel is down. And we have been very fortunate to grow some good crops.”

Jack will increase rice acreage slightly in 2004, “but that's strictly because we'll be grading some more land and it will go into rice.”

As to the long-term outlook for prices, Jack said, “It looks like good prices are sustainable through at least another marketing year. If we get a couple of years behind us, we can let our cash reserves build back up.”