Through late August and across all crops, Louisiana’s harvest has yielded surprisingly well. But as Hurricane Katrina lashed the state’s coast and moved inland, producers took shelter and hoped for the best.

“The storm is still going on – some winds are gusting – so I’m not about to get out in it,” said Harold Lambert, a crop consultant located some 30 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. “I expect we’ll be out of the field for a week or so.”

In the area Lambert works almost all the corn has been harvested and almost none of the cotton has been.

“We’re unique here in that we grow hardly any Group 3 and 4 soybeans. We grow almost all Group 5s and 6s. Of the few Group 4s we have, only half have been harvested. Before this storm hit, yields for most everything looked very good.”

In the 25 years he’s consulted, this season’s soybeans “across the board are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Our Group 5s look great. If we’re spared huge downpours and winds, a couple inches of rain may actually help.”

Of all the crops, Lambert is most concerned about cotton. “We’re not as big a cotton producing area as 50 miles north. Some varieties here were approaching 50 percent open boll when the storm hit. That’s not good.”

Before the hurricane threatened, Louisiana’s grain harvest had become frustrating on several fronts, say Extension specialists.

“Diesel prices are so high a lot of producers are bob-tailing crops in with their trucks,” said David Lanclos, Louisiana Extension soybean and corn specialist. “That’s slowed things down.

“On top of that, elevators are full and having trouble getting rid of grain. The Mississippi River is low and that’s helped back up barge traffic dramatically.”

Still, the hurricane is Lanclos’ main focus. “The really bad weather is expected to nail the eastern parishes: Concordia, Tensas, East Carroll, Catahoula and areas along the Mississippi line. That’s where the rainfall and high winds should hit and may push over some of our corn.”

In south Louisiana, first crop rice harvest is approaching 80 to 85 percent completion.

“The crop is yielding very well although some of the later yields have fallen off a little,” said Steve Linscombe, an LSU Ag Center rice breeder based in Crowley, La. “That’s not abnormal, though. In the last week of August, we expect to see yields drop a bit. Overall, the crop has been very good.”

Hurricane Katrina isn’t expected to impact southwest Louisiana – where Crowley is located – very much.

“We’ve had some wind but no rain yet,” said Linscombe. “That may not be the case in northern Louisiana. I believe they’re expecting substantial winds and rain so the rice crop may be hurt. There’s rice still left in the field there.”

Linscombe said the state’s second crop rice acreage will be down for reasons other than the hurricane.

“First, the first-crop harvest was delayed. We had some rice in the field beyond our ‘window of second opportunity.’

“Second, the economics of growing rice right now aren’t good. A lot of producers didn’t have any money left to put into second crop fertilizer.

“Third – and this is a serious issue – is storage capacity. We had such a good first crop, many wondered whether there would be adequate storage for a second crop. There are many things playing into this.”

Typically, as soon as producers begin harvesting the first rice crop, “mills can’t wait to get a hold of it. This year, that hasn’t been the case. We had so much rice left over from the 2004 crop they’re backed up.”

Storage space hasn’t opened up as quickly as it normally does. Outstanding yields – “I’m hearing 50 barrels (180 bushels) frequently” – aren’t helping.

“That’s not a bad problem to have except when you don’t have a place to put it.”

Many say Louisiana’s first rice crop pays the bills and the second crop makes the money.

“That’s true for some but not for everyone. It varies. The second crop is being mostly affected by poor economics. I’ve heard a number of people say they’re averaging 180 bushels and still can’t cash-flow. That knocks hopes for a second crop back.”

Many rice producers are cutting the best crops they’ve ever had.

“They should be ecstatic about it. But it’s difficult to be excited about these great yields because there’s no light at the end of the economic tunnel.”

Input costs are an industry-wide problem, said Linscombe. Further north, though, “at least they have other cropping options. Down here we can grow a few soybeans but that’s a shaky bet. Other than crawfish and cattle, rice is it around here.”

The bin storage problem could be eased somewhat by the announcement over the weekend that Cuba will buy 100,000 metric tons of paddy rice and 30,000 metric tons of milled rice for delivery beginning in September. (See earlier story.)

USA Rice Federation leaders said the sale, which could have a value of $25 million, could help growers start emptying bins of 2004 crop and free up space for 2005 crop rice.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com