U.S. rice industry leaders met recently for the USA Rice Federation Outlook Conference with one eye on the economy and the other peering at the prospects for the 2009 crop.

Louisiana farmer Randy Thibodeaux of Acadia Parish, La., said he came home from the conference with a mixed outlook. “It wasn’t so much doom and gloom,” he said.

Forecasts at the conference projected fuel and nitrogen costs will continue to decline.

“When do you pull the plug and start buying?” asked Thibodeaux, who claimed he won’t cut back or increase acreage for 2009 and said many other farmers seem prepared to stick with planting the same amount of rice as 2008.

Even after the difficulties from two hurricanes this year, he said, many farmers are comfortable with rice. “It’s not often you lose a whole crop.”

Farmer Richard Hardee of Gueydan, La., is also likely to plant the same number of acres in 2009 as he did in 2008. He said things are changing so quickly in the marketplace that it’s difficult to project what might occur with prices and expenses.

“I think we are pretty much sticking to our game plan because you can’t really plan. You just keep plugging away.”

Hardee’s 2009 plans have been complicated by Hurricane Ike. “We’re still looking at salt water in our canals.”

Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station, told the gathering that Xueyan Sha, LSU AgCenter rice breeder, has developed a line of rice, LA2125, with the potential to be released as a variety in 2009 to compete with imported Jasmine rice.

Linscombe also said development of a medium-grain Clearfield variety is being expedited, with 2,000 lines now growing at the winter nursery in Puerto Rico. Work will begin at the research station to explore developing hybrid rice in a cooperative project with a visiting Chinese scientist.

“We’re pretty excited about this new venture.”

Linscombe said after the conference that producers seem to be optimistic for 2009, despite concerns about the economy. “Most producers were in a fairly good frame of mind.”

The gathering capped a year of two hurricanes, up-and-down rice prices and high input costs. “Many people were just relieved that this cropping season is over,” Linscombe said.

Several producers approached Linscombe about the variety LA2125. “I had people from every rice-growing state asking questions about it.”

He also had inquiries about several other new varieties, including Catahoula, Neptune and CL151.

Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist, told the conference Louisiana’s 2008 rice crop was affected by two hurricanes that hurt yields. “We were on track to break last year’s record,” he said of the outlook before the storms changed the outcome.

Saichuk believes Louisiana acreage could increase slightly in 2009 to 460,000-470,000 acres. An LSU AgCenter survey showed the 2008 acreage total in Louisiana was 455,000.

At his office in Crowley, La., Saichuk said projections appear to indicate rice prices will remain stable or decline slightly. Bank problems could complicate agriculture, he said, but maybe not. “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Saichuk said. “It’s more of a wait-and-see attitude than anything else.”

Saichuk has detected more interest among farmers for growing an increased amount of medium-grain rice.

Two Louisiana individuals received recognition at the conference. High school student Will Hetzel of Jennings, La., won a $3,500 scholarship from the USA Rice Federation, and producer John Earles of Bunkie, La., was selected for the 2009 USA Rice Leadership program.

Also at the conference, USA Rice Federation Chairman Jamie Warshaw of Lake Charles, La., announced 15 companies have signed a licensing agreement to use the “Grown in the USA” logo on their rice products. The companies include four based in Louisiana: Falcon Rice Mill, Farmers Rice Milling, Hoppe Farms and Louisiana Rice Mill.

“The new logo will serve as a powerful new marketing tool for the industry,” Warshaw said. “It allows us to say to consumers, when you want the standard for excellence, choose U.S.-grown rice.”

U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas told the conference that disaster assistance for farmers may not be available until May 2009. “That’s absolutely unacceptable.”

Lincoln said she hopes the Obama administration will bring a change in trade policy with Cuba, once the largest buyer of American rice. She said Raul Castro appears ready to make changes in his country.

“The Cuban people loved our rice in the 1940s and 1950s. It is a different time in Cuba.”

National agriculture columnist Jim Wiesemeyer said it’s possible a change in U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations could occur soon after Obama becomes president. ”It’s time for a change.”

Wiesemeyer said it’s likely Congress would approve a trade policy shift with Cuba. It’s also likely budget cuts could affect direct farm payments, even though the agriculture budget is a quarter of a percent of the U.S. budget and most of the farm bill is directed at commodities and nutrition programs for the poor.

“They cannot and will not balance the budget on the back of agriculture,” Wiesemeyer said.

Agriculture consultant Richard Brock recommended farmers buy diesel and nitrogen fertilizer now to take advantage of low prices. He also urged against selling rice in the current market. “There’s no need to get in a hurry.”

Nathan Childs, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported that Thai Jasmine rice imports have increased every year since the product started coming to the United States in 1980. Childs found it likely American rice consumption will increase because of the bad economy, but said American rice is at a disadvantage in overseas markets because it costs about $100 more per ton.