Houston-based Riviana Foods Inc. is planning to sell its rice milling, storage and drying facilities in southwest Louisiana, a move area farmers see as putting another question mark on the future of their industry.

Riviana officials said the sale will include operations in Abbeville, Crowley, Jennings, Kaplan and Rayne, La. They said the company will honor its commitment to purchase rice through the 2006 harvest season.

Farmers were already facing an uncertain spring because of the saltwater washed into area crawfish, rice and sugar cane ponds and fields by Hurricane Rita last September. Soil samples from the five-parish area have shown soluble salt levels of more than 8,000 parts per million in some locations.

Riviana officials said the decision to close the operations was difficult.

“Our company was founded in Abbeville in 1911, and we have strong ties to the people of south Louisiana,” W. David Hanks, president and CEO of Riviana, said in a statement. “At this time in our history, however, we simply operate in too many locations.”

Previously, Riviana closed a packaging facility in the area, relocating some of the equipment and workers in Memphis, Tenn. Hanks said the latest announcement will result in Riviana consolidating more of its operations.

“Depending on whether someone buys the facilities and continues to operate them, this could have a major impact on our rice farmers,” said John Saichuk, Extension rice specialist with the LSU AgCenter.

“We've already had other operations close down. That will make it more difficult for farmers to market their rice at a time when prices have been low and input costs are rising.”

Riviana Foods Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ebro Puleva, S.A., a Spanish food group. Its principal brands include Mahatma, Carolina and Success.

“If Riviana was still a Louisiana-based company, I don't think there would be any questions about it staying open,” said one Jefferson Davis Parish farmer. “When you get overseas firms involved, it's just a numbers situation to them.”

The company said the sale will include its rice milling, drying and storage operations in Abbeville, drying and storage facilities in Kaplan and Crowley, and storage facilities in Jennings and Rayne.