Southwest Louisiana rice farmers may have planted 30 percent fewer acres this spring. But it’s unclear whether the reduction is due more to salt-contaminated fields and bayous or to economic conditions, rice experts say.

“Vermillion Parish is one of our most important rice-producing parishes,” says Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter’s Southwest Region and the Rice Research Station in Crowley, La. “They usually plant 80,000 acres of rice, but this year they’re down to 25,000 to 30,000 acres.

“So with just that one parish, we’re down 10 percent.”

Linscombe says he still expects Louisiana’s rice plantings to be down a total of 30 percent when the dust clears from what has been one of the most stressful winters Louisiana rice producers have endured.

“But it’s hard to get a handle on what’s happening,” he says, adding that some farmers were still trying to plant because of changing weather conditions in the early part of May.

When Hurricane Rita came ashore near the Texas-Louisiana border last September, the storm surge carried salt water many miles inland to the rice fields, bayous and ditches in the traditional rice-growing areas of southwest Louisiana.

Rita wasn’t the first to push salt water into those areas, but, in most cases, other storms were followed by rains that helped float salt particles up out of the soil and into waterways that could take them back into the Gulf. Instead, the area pounded by Rita received almost no rainfall from late September until recent weeks.

“You go 10 miles south of the station toward the coast and the acreage may be down 10 percent to 15 percent,” says Linscombe. “You go 35 to 40 miles north, and it might be down 35 to 40 percent. That’s not due to salt contamination, but to economic conditions.”

He said he’s familiar with one farming operation that normally plants 600 to 700 acres of rice. “This year, they’ve only planted 200 acres, and that’s so they’ll have it for their crawfish operation.”

Some farmers had relatively low levels of salt contamination in their soils. But when they planted and began flooding their fields from nearby ditches and bayous, salty water damaged the rice, and they had to abandon it.

“Now we’ve received some rains, and it looks like those have helped remove some of the salt,” he said. “Those farmers are going back and trying to make those situations work.”

As is often the case, some areas received more rain than others, and most need more precipitation, said Jay Grymes, climatologist with the LSU AgCenter.

“It wasn’t a drought-buster,” he said. “But certainly for southwest Louisiana, in particular, this was huge. Some areas got more in 12 hours than they got in the last 12 weeks.”

Louisiana growers were already hurting economically before hurricanes Katrina and Rita came ashore last August and September. Low rice prices and high input costs, primarily diesel fuel, had many growers scratching their heads about how to make ends meet when Rita struck.

“We think our rice acreage would have been down 20 percent this year with no hurricanes,” said Linscombe, who has been a rice breeder at the Crowley Station for 20 years and also serves as director of the Southwest Region and the Station. “It’s been a trying time for many of our farmers.”

Growers like Ernest Girouard, who farms in Vermillion Parish, says the combination of the hurricanes and the drought that followed have forced him to play a waiting game this spring.

Girouard’s land was under 10 feet of water for 30 days after Hurricane Rita. The levees, which normally hold a flood on his rice, helped keep the storm waters from receding as fast as it might have in other crops.

LSU specialists determined through greenhouse testing that rice will grow in fields with less than 800 to 900 parts per million of salt in them. The salt levels in Girouard’s fields were much higher than that, preventing him from planting this spring for the first time in more than 25 years.

Farther west, Clarence Berken, who farms near Lake Arthur, La., said at one point he expected to lose 900 acres due to salt contamination. “If it doesn’t get any better, we might lose another 500 acres.”

Linscombe said the high diesel fuel prices of recent months have put many southwest Louisiana producers in a quandary. In normal years, those farmers pump water out of bayous and ditches.

This spring, moving that water on to their fields has been an invitation to disaster because of the high levels of salt remaining in the water. “Many of these growers have wells they could pump from, but the high cost of diesel fuel makes that prohibitive,” says Linscombe.

A few farmers have wells powered by natural gas, but the economics for those growers aren’t much better.

“Growers are also concerned about what happens when they harvest,” he said. “You can allow some varieties to dry down in the field, but, with Cypress and Cheniere, it’s better if you dry them mechanically.”

Parish Extension agents say it’s been a strange spring with some locales such as the area around Henry in Vermillion Parish resembling ghost towns because of the lack of any planting activity.

“There are quite a few farmers who still don’t have any rice planted,” says Linscombe. “Some are waiting and hoping they can still get some rice in. Others have taken jobs in town or off shore.

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