Once again, U.S. rice producers are facing an upcoming season rife with uncertainty over commodity prices, input costs, water availability and the farm bill. Here are the thoughts of a few rice producers attending the USA Rice Outlook Conference held in St. Louis, Mo., recently.

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Allen McLain, Jr., who farms about 1,500 acres of rice, soybeans and crawfish with his father, Allen McLain, Sr., in Abbeville, La., is concerned that an anticipated increase in U.S. rice acres in 2014 could push supplies higher and prices lower. U.S. farmers planted just under 2.5 million acres in rice in 2013. “There are always uncertainties, too, and you never know what they are,” McLain said.

McLain and his father had a very good year producing rice in 2013, he said. “We had one of the better years that we’ve seen in a long time. It started off very tough, but it worked out in the end.” A ratoon crop was also very effective, according to McLain.

A good year for growing rice

Shannon Harrington produces rice and soybeans and operates a cow-calf operation in a partnership with his brother Blaine, in Iowa, La. The Harringtons also had a banner yield year in 2013. “The previous year, we had one of the worst,” Harrington said. “We had a variety that had been performing well in the past, and we had a bad outbreak of blast that hit every acre we had, about 2,000 acres. This year, it bounced back, and we had one of our best crops ever.”

A new farm bill is the biggest issue facing rice producers, Harrington noted. “We know that there are going to be cuts in funding. Simply eliminating direct payments is going to have a direct impact on us.”

The timetable is even more important than whatever is in a final bill, Harrington said. “They’re working on other things to take the place of direct payments, but there is the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen. Here we are, needing to be planning for next year’s crop. But we don’t have anything etched in stone as far as government support is concerned. Last January, we got an extension of the previous farm bill, and we operated under that for a year. Now we’re coming up to another deadline.”

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Lorenzo Pope, a producer and researcher in Glenn, Calif., says expenses are a critical issue for rice producers, mostly for weed control. The farm bill is also a concern, sort of. “In California, a new farm bill is probably not going to help us much. There will be a safety net, but if you use the safety net, you’re in trouble already. We’ll have to be careful without any government subsidies. Just basic rice may not work anymore.”

Water availability is also getting tighter in California. “How much water security you have depends on what water district you’re in,” Pope said. “Those south of the Sacramento are looking at big water cuts. We’re also very dependent on the rain to fill the reservoirs. Once we have sufficient water in the spring, we can plant with the confidence that we can harvest.”

Rice holding its own in farm bill debate

John Owen, Louisiana rice producer and chairman, USA Rice Producers’ Group, told attendees of the conference that despite small U.S. rice acres, the rice industry is holding its own in the farm bill debate.

“Nothing worth anything comes cheaply. But in this farm bill debate, have we not as an industry fought the good fight? And have we not fought above our weight class? We have stood and faced some really powerful people inside and outside the farm community, on and off Capitol Hill and we in the rice industry are still standing.

“We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re asking for a place at the table, for respect for what we do, some understanding of the risks we face and a set of reasonable tools to help us manage those risks. We’re not asking to be guaranteed a profit, only that we have enough support to keep us viable when markets turn down, or when Mother Nature reminds us who’s really in charge.

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“We should not apologize for pursuing policy that is not only in agriculture’s best interests, but in America’s best interests.”

Owen noted that both the House and Senate bills “are in conference committee hands, and work toward completion is grinding forward, and I would emphasize grinding.”

Owen believes a farm bill will emerge from the conference committee this month, “and it will be approved by Congress, hopefully in January. Our detractors are not going away, but as farmers, our purpose is as great as it’s ever been.”