BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana rice farmers say they’re eager to plant their crops this year to take advantage of good weather and excellent prices. “These farmers are pretty fired up out here,” said Earl Garber of G&H Seed. “We can’t hold them back planting this year, and last year we couldn’t get them to plant.”

This time last year, rice prices were dismal. But prices rebounded in time for the 2003 harvest, and now rice prices have jumped above $10 per hundredweight.

Prices for other farm commodities, such as soybeans, have increased, too.

LSU AgCenter rice specialist Johnny Saichuk estimated planting will be 30 percent to 40 percent completed in the primary rice-growing parishes of Acadia, Vermilion and Jefferson Davis by the end of the week (March 27). “They’re going to go seven days a week now,” Saichuk said.

An LSU AgCenter study, published in January by the Plant Management Network, concluded that “planting rice in late March resulted in the highest grain yields in southwest Louisiana, while seeding in mid-April was the more effective planting date in northeast Louisiana.” That study is available at: www.plantmanagementnetwork.org/pub/cm/research/2004/rice.

Cameron Parish farmer Mark Zaunbrecher said he and many farmers in his area wanted to plant earlier, but they were delayed because geese and ducks that arrived after hunting season remained in their fields and would have eaten most of the seed. He said he planted his first field — 100 acres — March 19, and he’ll plant a total of 2,500 acres.

LSU AgCenter county agent Keith Fontenot of Evangeline Parish said many farmers were reluctant to plant during this week’s cool weather, but many had planned for a lull. “They backed off a little, so it all won’t be maturing at the same time,” he said.

Blackbirds also are causing some problems in fields that have been planted, Fontenot said.

Farmer David Habetz of Ragley said he’s going to plant 700 acres, but he was waiting for the soil to dry before drill-seeding 350 acres of Clearfield, and he’s waiting for the sediment to settle before water seeding the rest of his fields. “Look out in the next couple of days,” he said recently.

It’s too early for planting in north Louisiana, according to Bill Williams, LSU AgCenter associate professor at the Northeast Research Station. “Most of our guys will hold off for a week or so, and it’s so wet they couldn’t get in the fields anyway,” he said.

Saichuk said farmers’ attitudes are much better this year. “It’s all the difference in the world, and that’s what good prices will do.”

The LSU AgCenter expert also said the planting started with unusually warm weather that allowed farmers to plant so quickly that some were having to stagger planting so all their fields won’t be ready for harvest at once. The good weather caught others by surprise, and they had to scramble to get their fields ready, he said.

Saichuk estimates 500,000 acres to 520,000 acres will be planted to rice in Louisiana — a significant increase from the 455,000 planted last year.

Farmer Clarence Berken of Lake Arthur said he’s almost finished planting 1,800 acres. “With the weather the way it is, we’ve been getting after it,” Berken said.

Berken isn’t as excited about the high prices as others, because he said the government’s loan deficiency and countercyclical payments will decrease as the world market price increases. “We could actually net less money per hundredweight,” he said.

Berken said he also plans for 1,000 acres of soybeans to take advantage of high prices for that commodity, which has topped $10 a bushel.

LSU AgCenter county agent Howard Cormier of Vermilion Parish said he senses farmers are more upbeat this year. “It is a much more positive mood,” Cormier said. “There’s hope this year. Last year, there were just very few indications things would get better.”

As recently as 2002, farmers had been given dire forecasts projecting no change in prices for the next six to eight years, he recalled.

Farmer Donald Sagrera of Abbeville, La., said he’s encouraged by the good prices, but he’s learned rice prices are unpredictable. “Things can look like there’s no relief in sight and then change overnight,” he said.

Even if farmers do exceptionally well this year, Cormier said, much of their profits probably will be used to make capital investments. “What they will probably do, if they do come out ahead, is put money into updated equipment,” he said.

Vermilion Parish farmers planted 67,000 acres of rice last year, down 20,000 acres from 2002. But Cormier said rice acreage in Vermilion should increase this year. “I would expect we will be somewhere in the range of 90,000 acres,” he said.

Vermilion Parish acreage has been on the decline since 1998, when farmers planted 108,000 acres in rice, according to Cormier, who said the parish’s peak acreage was 151,000 in 1954.

LSU AgCenter county agent Eddie Eskew, who works in Jefferson Davis, Calcasieu, Cameron, Allen and Beauregard parishes, said he doesn’t expect a big increase in the amount of rice planted in that area. “Most farmers will plant what they have been accustomed to — that is about 85 percent of their contract acres because that is what they get government payments on.”

Eskew expects rice acreage in Jefferson Davis Parish to total 85,000 this year, compared to 75,455 last year. More than a third of the acreage should be planted by March 27, he said.

“In south Louisiana, farmers are more likely to increase rice acres somewhat, due to pricing,” said Randy Jemison of the USA Rice Federation. He said more soybeans will be planted by rice farmers, but not at the expense of rice acreage. “Set-aside land probably will be where increased bean acreage is planted.”

North Louisiana farmers have more options to plant alternative crops, according to Jemison, who added, “But I have not heard anything earth-shaking about rice acreage reductions in favor of other crops.”

LSU AgCenter county agent Ron Levy of Acadia Parish said some rice farmers might shift acreage to soybeans to take advantage of the good prices for that crop even though bean yields in south Louisiana are sub-par. “The cost of planting rice is a lot more expensive than planting soybeans,” Levy explained.

Farmers who would normally skip planting rice in some fields under a rotation plan could also consider beans. That way, Levy said, weeds can be managed in those fields.

Bruce Schultz (337-788-8821 or bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu) writes for LSU AgCenter News.