Early December has brought cold and rainy weather to southwest Louisiana. Farmer Mark Pousson has just finished supervising the loading of a string of railcars and is now heading to spend some much-deserved downtime at hunting camp. In a few hours, while Pousson’s dogs run deer, the train will pull out of the Lacassine Industrial Park and, with its cargo of rough rice, head south to Mexico.

How did this come about?

“About five years ago, a handful of rice farmers were sitting around a table with few options,” explains Pousson. “We couldn’t shift our rice and couldn’t even get a price. We had notes to pay, equipment, land rent, whatnot. So, we were stuck and looking for solutions.”

Far removed from Mississippi River barge traffic, the men “had to make something happen. We started looking around. Would a barge facility work? What was the situation with the port of Lake Charles?”

The solution was right under their noses. The industrial park – about a 20-minute drive east from Lake Charles -- was waiting to service growers in Jeff Davis and Acadia parishes, the top rice-producing parishes in Louisiana. The park included a huge, shuttered sugar factory that had left behind two rail spurs and truck scales.

See a gallery of the facility

“Basically, we set up around five meetings where the area farmers could find out what we were trying to do,” says producer Chris Krielow, speaking after setting his cattle up to weather the cold snap. “In the end, we got a bunch of farmers involved along with some equipment dealers wanting to support our efforts.”

And that was the genesis of the South Louisiana Rail Facility, an LLC, which now has 156 paid members.

The plan was simple: just provide paddy rice to those wanting to buy it.

“We wanted to satisfy an existing market,” says Krielow. “It wasn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel. Mexico has been buying a tremendous amount of paddy rice from the United States for the past decade-plus. We’re close to Mexico and have the product they want.

“We wanted to sell them our paddy rice. What we didn’t have was a mode of transportation to get our rice to them. That’s where the idea of this facility was actually born.”

The farmers knew three things: Mexico imports more U.S. rice than anyone else; they have excess milling capacity and the majority of the rice they buy is rough, not milled.

The farmers began looking around “and LAFA (Louisiana Agricultural Financial Authority) had this industrial park with a rail system already established,” says Krielow. “There are two one-mile spurs off the main rail just waiting for someone to use it.

“With that set-up already there, all we needed was the elevator and holding capacity to utilize that existing park. The project cost – with the loading facility and elevator -- in the neighborhood of $4.5 million. If the rail had to be built, it would have been up to around $10 million.”

Pousson picks up the narrative. “Well, what was it going to take to make this work? At that time, (current Louisiana) Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain came into office. He thought it was a promising idea but, at the time, had empty pockets and couldn’t help us.”