The specialists – interviewed at the USA Rice Outlook Conference in Biloxi – say the increase would be due to the optimism that comes on the heels of a profitable rice crop for many U.S. producers, one in which good yields and rising prices combined to push gross returns higher than they’ve been in years.

Here are the specialists’ assessments of the situation in each of the major rice producing states:

Arkansas – Rice farmers produced a record 6,600-pound-per-acre average yield, or 147 bushels per acre, in 2003, the sixth straight year of improved yields.

According to University of Arkansas Extension agricultural economist Bobby Coats, Arkansas producers could plant 1.522 million acres to rice in 2004 if prices soften as expected. If long grain prices do not soften between now and planting, “and there are viable futures pricing opportunities, it wouldn’t be a problem to plant 1.632 million acres of rice.”

Missouri – “Missouri had a very good crop in 2003,” said Donn Beighley, rice breeder, Southeast Missouri State University. “Our rice acreage was about 174,000 acres, which is down about 9 percent from 2002’s 192,000 acres.

“What’s exciting was No. 1, we had record yields (6,100 pounds per acre). We’re also starting to see an upward climb in yields. We can attribute a lot of that to the varieties that we have.”

Excellent weather for planting and during the growing season also contributed to uniform stands throughout the state, “which made for good weed control. However, Missouri is not supposed to have many rice diseases. This year, we probably had our worst year ever for rice diseases, both blast and sheath blight.

“We’re really not sure what to attribute it to,” said Beighley. “But it was a concern for us because the varieties that are available currently don’t have as much resistance to these diseases. We’re also noticing that we had low milling quality in many of the varieties, including Wells and Frances.”

Beighley expects southeast Missouri rice acreage to increase to between 190,000 acres and 200,000 acres in 2004.

California – “There were a lot of long faces early on in the season,” said Christopher Greer, farm advisor, University of California. “We had a cool wet spring and a lot of late-planted fields. But overall, we had pretty good stand establishment.”

Conditions for crop growth improved after planting, noted Greer. “In July, there were 16 consecutive days of temperatures over 100 degrees, and plant development sped up. We had plants that were heading seven to 10 days earlier than average. We also had a lot of lodging this year, and that may have had something to do with the rapid growth during the vegetative stage, leading to a decrease in straw strength.”

Conditions at harvest were very favorable which led to very good milling quality, according to Greer. “Yields were a little lower than average, but considering what we went through, most of the growers were very happy with the final results.”

Greer projects a slight increase in California rice acreage, if planting conditions are favorable, from 495,000 acres to 550,000 in 2004.

Louisiana – The state’s rice producers cut rice yields of around 6,100 pounds per acre, which included an excellent ratoon crop yield on 99,000 acres in 2003.

“I think our yields will continue to improve,” said Johnny Saichuk, Extension rice specialist at the LSU AgCenter. “We have room to improve our management skills, and we have new varieties that continue to come on.

“Also when we increase our second cropping, it’s going to make a big difference for the Louisiana farmer.”

While good prices and excellent yields helped many rice producers get their heads back above water, a few others took the opportunity to retire from farming, noted Saichuk. “They decided to settle out and pay their bills.”

Farm bill legislation “has hurt the Louisiana rice producer more than those in other states because we weren’t able to take advantage of updating bases and yields like we should have been able to do,” Saichuk said.

Saichuk believes that Louisiana rice producers will plant between 500,000 and 525,000 acres of rice in 2004, “but I hate to see it increase too much, where we would see a depression in prices as a result.”

Mississippi – USDA has projected a 6,600-pound yield for the state, which would tie the previous record made in 2001. New high-yielding varieties and favorable weather contributed to the good crop, notes Steve Martin, agricultural economist at Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville.

Martin expects rice acreage in the state to remain steady at 245,000 acres in 2004, but that will be dependent in large part on rice prices at planting.

Texas – The state planted 181,000 acres to rice in 2003, according to USDA, which was down from 201,000 acres the year before, continuing a trend of lower acres.

Yields were also quite a bit off in 2003, according to David Anderson, agricultural economist, Texas A&M University. “This year, we were down about 10 percent from the year before, the first decline in a number of years.”

Weather was a big factor for the lower production. “Where Hurricane Claudette hit, we had yield reductions of 20 to 25 percent in some of our higher yielding counties. Late planting also took the top off of what we had seen in previous production. It also cut into some second-crop acres.”

In addition, early season pest infestations were significantly greater than in previous years.

Texas rice acres will be down again in 2004 to between 171,000 acres and 176,000 acres, according to Anderson. “Landlord/tenant issues and farm programs are a big part of that. We’re going to continue to see land being taken out of production (by landlords) because of the way payments are structured in the farm program.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com