HOUSTON – There’s trouble in Texas and Louisiana rice country. And the region’s wildlife is also at risk.

“Certainly these are not the best of times for agriculture, particularly for Louisiana rice farmers,” said Clarence Berken, a rice producer from Lake Arthur, La., and president of the Louisiana Rice Growers Association. Berken spoke about the Louisiana rice situation during a recent USDA listening session on the decline of the rice industry along the Gulf Coast.

“Senator John Breaux, D-La., has characterized the rice situation here as the worst he’s seen in 30 years,” Berken said. “Due to the adverse economic conditions, all rice producers in Louisiana are suffering large financial losses. Many of them will not be able to obtain financing next year.”

The losses come from 98-cent per hundredweight reduction in new farm bill support combined with an additional loss of approximately $1.44 per cwt. in domestic price, resulting in a total loss of $2.42 per cwt. for Louisiana rice producers, a 24-percent drop.

“We, along with Governor Mike Foster, our congressional delegation, bankers and the entire rice support infrastructure support additional economic disaster assistance to offset the reduction in income and provide a transition to the new farm bill,” Berken said.

The landlord/tenant issue is also adversely affecting Louisiana growers, according to Berken, “because of the decoupled program structure of the FAIR Act (Freedom to Farm) and continued by the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

“It will continue to strengthen the landlord’s position while weakening that of the tenant, particularly under adverse market conditions and especially in areas where there are no viable cropping alternatives,” he said.

“The financial losses of 2002 in addition to the economic outlook of the season ahead cause us to have great concern for the very survival of the Louisiana rice industry.”

The situation also has implications for the environment in Texas and Louisiana, according to Lawrence Armour, representing an industry-oriented environmentalist group. The organization helps rice farmers enhance their rice farming operations for the benefit of wildlife and educates the public on the environmental benefits of the rice culture.

“Much of the development around Houston the last few years has occurred to the detriment of rice farming,” Armour said. “The results have been a shrinking of the infrastructure until rice farming has all but disappeared.

“Where there has not been concrete and steel development, rice fields have evolved into scrub wasteland where there is no wildlife other than rats, snakes and coyotes. They’re being held by developers getting program payments.

“Furthermore, the reduction in rice acreage which once served as holding ponds for excess rains in a very flat and swampy area of the country has exacerbated flooding problems around the area.

“The Gulf Coast area of Texas and Louisiana has historically been one of the most productive estuary systems in the United States fueled by fresh water runoff from coastal wetlands,” Armour said. “As these wetlands are developed, the rice production culture and habitat has replaced the naturally occurring coastal wetlands by providing freshwater runoff and continued the productivity of the life cycle of these estuaries.

“The loss of the rice industry in Texas and southwestern Louisiana has severely impacted these estuaries. The problem will continue and most likely worsen in the growing areas in and around Houston. Traditional waterfowl habitat will disappear. Anything that can be done to preserve this industry will ultimately help save the productive ecosystem and preserve the natural balance in these areas of Texas and Louisiana.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com