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Published September 21, 2011, 02:58 PM

Louisiana sets record with rice crop

LAFAYETTE, La. — A rice season with possibly record yields was a mixed bag for farmers who wrestled with drought conditions and saltwater seeping into fields down south.

LAFAYETTE, La. — A rice season with possibly record yields was a mixed bag for farmers who wrestled with drought conditions and saltwater seeping into fields down south.

With most of the season's first crop already harvested, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is estimating an average rice yield of 6,400 pounds per acre in Louisiana, overtaking the current record of 6,300 pounds, said Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station near Crowley.

But the high average yield does not tell the whole story for this year's rice crop, which was marked by unusually dry weather and the decision by many farmers to forgo rice for better-paying crops.

In coastal areas, the drought conditions allowed saltwater to push north into the canals that some rice farmers use for irrigation, Linscombe said.

He said the salinity problem cut yields in some coastal areas and a few fields had to be abandoned.

“Those guys who did not have a problem with saltwater did well,” LSU AgCenter rice specialist Johnny Saichuk said.

This season was also marked by farmers who would normally plant rice opting for other crops, seeking higher returns with corn, soybeans or sorghum, Saichuk said.

The total number of harvested acres of rice this year is at 413,000, down from 530,000 acres last year, he said.

He said low rice prices at the beginning of the season were another factor pushing farmers to other crops, but prices have picked up in recent months.

“It looks like the market this year is better than it was last year,” said Fred Zaunbrecher, who with his brothers farms about 2,100 acres of rice in Acadia and Lafayette parishes.

He said rice is selling for about $25 a barrel, which is 162 pounds.

“Last year, the best we got was $22,” Zaunbrecher said.

Zaunbrecher said the higher prices are likely due in some part to a tighter supply as farmers move into other crops

He said that rice acreage is down sharply not just in Louisiana but across the country.

Saichuk said a drop in rice exports from southeast Asia might also be contributing to the rise in price.

“The thing that affects it the most are exports from Thailand and Vietnam,” he said.

The higher price and higher yield are critical this year, because the dry conditions forced farmers to pay dramatically higher fuel costs to keep irrigation pumps running, Saichuk said.

He said that drier weather generally produces a good rice crop, but the tradeoff is the fuel bill.

“Diesel fuel is eating these guys alive,” Saichuk said.

Jeff Durand, who farms about 850 acres in St. Martin Parish with his family, said he anticipates breaking even, considering the expense of irrigation pumps and the intensive labor needed for irrigation work.

Durand said his yield is up from last year, “but last year was not a good year.”

Like many rice farmers in the area, Durand has some of his fields doing double duty as crawfish ponds, and he is now preparing for the shift.

“We're hoping for a good crawfish crop,” he said.

About 80 percent of Louisiana's rice acreage is in the southern half of the state, with the bulk of that planted in Acadia, Vermilion and Jefferson Davis parishes, Linscombe said.

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