Louisiana farmer returns to his roots After leaving his lifelong home in southwest Louisiana to find success in big city business, Kyle Sonnier has picked what his father calls the "absolute worst time" to return to their family farm.

"It is a dream of mine to be able to farm with my dad," Sonnier says. "He just keeps telling me that I picked the absolute worst time to come back on the farm. But, I'm optimistic about the future of farming. I wouldn't have left a weekly paycheck if I thought things couldn't turn around."

Sonnier, who grew up on his family's farm in Allen Parish, La., is beginning his farming career after working for a number of years as a financial auditor for a large oil company in Houston. "The pay was definitely better than what I can make farming right now. But, there was just some part of me that always wanted to be out in the country, farming," he says.

Despite his early interest in farming, Sonnier focused his education in a non-agricultural field, earning a degree in finance from Louisiana State University. After a decade of corporate life, however, his desire to farm the land and enjoy the slower pace of country life with his wife and children won out over the monetary rewards his previous career offered.

Looking forward to farming his third rice and crawfish crops in 2001, Sonnier has already learned that changing careers doesn't necessarily mean changing business philosophies. In fact, his previous experience and education in finance is serving him well in today's depressed farm economy.

"I'm not locked into any one specific way to farm. I'm willing to learn and I'm willing to try almost anything that has the potential to make farming more profitable. I want to be one of the farmers that hangs on to make it through this cycle of low prices," he says. "The name of the game is to reduce your costs and improve your rate of production. It's the same with any business."

Sharing resources with his father is one of the ways Sonnier has found he can reduce his operating expenses. "It's difficult for young people, like myself, to get into farming because of the capital outlay required," he says.

To remedy this problem, Sonnier is trading his labor for the use of his father's farm machinery. "It's a good situation for both of us," he says. "I farm my own land and pay for all of my own expenses. But, when I'm not on my land, I'm on my Dad's land, providing him with free labor. It's been difficult getting my feet on the ground the last couple of years and being able to use my Dad's equipment has really helped me establish my farming operation."

In an effort to further reduce his production costs, Sonnier is considering the joint purchase, with his father, of a piece of high clearance spray equipment. The purchase, he believes, would allow both he and his father to rely less on aerial applicators, reducing their pesticide application costs.

Another cost savings measure Sonnier hopes to implement this year is the use of herbicide-tolerant rice for red rice control. "We have big problems with red rice in this area. It drastically cuts our yields and it's ugly and trashy," he says. "I'm hoping to get my hands on some Clearfield rice, which is expected to be available commercially in limited quantities in 2001. I want to see for myself if it performs as well as promised.

"It would be really exciting if it does work as well as is anticipated. We could reap substantial savings, especially with fuel, if we could dry-plant all of our rice, instead of being forced to water-plant in order to control the red rice," he says."

The importance of decreasing per-acre production costs in today's depressed farm economy isn't lost on Sonnier, who says he sold his 2000 rice crop for $10.06 per barrel ($2.79 per bushel). His government loan deficiency payment on the 2000 crop averaged $4.83 per barrel ($1.34 per bushel). "I can remember being a kid when my dad was selling his rice for $31 per barrel ($8.61 per bushel) and now the best you can hope for is about $10 per barrel, or less depending on the milling quality of your rice."

To help offset low rice prices, Sonnier is depending on a good catch of crawfish on his farm in 2001. "We're really counting on the crawfish harvest to supplement our rice income this year."

Crawfish production numbers in Louisiana were down in 2000, due at least partly to extended periods of drought. What happens, Sonnier says, is as the water table drops, so to do the crawfish. The greater the number of crawfish burrowing deeper into the soil to reach available water, the fewer the number of crawfish that are able to make it back to the surface during the harvest period.

The extended dry conditions in 2000 are also expected to impact the 2001 crawfish harvest, which has already begun for some farmers in the state. "The 2001 harvest is running a little late but we've caught a few small crawfish in the traps so far and we're hopeful it will be a good year for crawfish. The experts we've consulted are predicting our crawfish harvest will run from February until June," he says.

In addition to cutting his production costs, Sonnier says he is also focusing on increasing the efficiency of his farming operation. "I plan on eventually taking over our family farm, but there are economies of scale, and right now, I'm not at that level of efficiency."

To increase the efficiency of his farm, Sonnier is going back to school, so to speak. He's participating in the rice verification program with Louisiana State University and he's recently been accepted into the USA Rice Federation's Rice Leadership Program. "My goals in 2001 are to work harder, to try to learn from others, and to put into practice any cost-saving measures I learn from other farmers through these programs," he says

Through the verification program, research personnel from Louisiana State University will make weekly visits to Sonnier's farm throughout the crop season. "I'm really excited about being involved in this program. I'll be able to compare the costs and benefits of what they recommend with my farming practices in similar fields to see which inputs and production practices are the most profitable for my farm.

"There are a lot of things on the horizon that are really exciting and could be revolutionary for agriculture. And, I can't think of anybody better to learn from than the experts at LSU that are on the cutting edge of farming," he says.

Sonnier also plans to spend a few weeks a year traveling to different rice-growing regions with other rice leadership program participants. "As farmers, we tend to be kind of tunnel-visioned, but we can always learn more about rice farming from the farmers in other parts of the country who are also producing rice."

Probably the best source of new information, Sonnier says he has found is a get-together with his neighbors. "I'm actively involved in our local rice growers' association and we get together often to share information and swap notes about the things we have found that work and those things that don't. "The farmers involved in the Allen Rice Growers Association aren't people just collecting government payments; they're levee-walkers. They are people who want to be farming and want to be doing better, and are willing to openly share ideas."