Bruce Schultz | 4/12/2006 11:58:22 PM
THORNWELL – The moods of farmers at the Thornwell Warehouse farm supply and rice dryer in Jefferson Davis Parish seem to be marked by plenty of highs and lows at the beginning of the 2006 rice growing season.
But even the high points aren’t good ones. They’re a mix of high fuel costs and high anxiety combined with low rice prices and low expectations of any rain.
"This is a mess" is how farmer Ronnie Guidry of Lake Arthur summed it up. He said he will only plant 500 acres this year, down from last year’s 800 acres.
High concentrations of salt water are quickly moving upstream in irrigation canals in southern Jefferson Davis Parish, and that will prevent some farmers from pumping water onto their fields, said Thornwell Warehouse Manager Joe Guidry.
"There’s 4,000 to 5,000 acres on hold because of salt water," Joe Guidry said. "There could be 1,500 to 2,000 acres on the verge of abandonment because of salt water."
The warehouse manager said it’s costing some farmers as much as $500 a day to pump ground water.
"We’re probably going to lose 900 acres because of the salt," said Lake Arthur farmer Clarence Berken. "If it doesn’t get any better, we might lose another 500."
Farmers agree it will take rain, and a lot of it, to bring relief by flushing high salt levels from the canals and marsh. But the online weather radar at the Thornwell Warehouse showed no expectations of rain for at least 10 days.
Dr. Steve Linscombe, LSU AgCenter rice breeder and regional director for southwestern Louisiana, said a decrease in rice acreage from last year’s total of 523,739 is expected, but it’s too early to make an accurate estimate.
Linscombe expects Louisiana won’t be the only state where rice acreage decreases.
"All the southern states are going to be down in acreage," he said.
LSU AgCenter county agent Eddie Eskew of Jefferson Davis Parish said rice planting in the area is "slow to complicated."
"The drought is really starting to impact everyone," Eskew said.
Farmers with crawfish production are having to pump frequently. The catch has improved, but diesel prices are rising, Eskew said.
Since Easter usually marks the peak in crawfish sales, farmers don’t have much time remaining to make money from that commodity, the county agent explained.
Eskew said the long-term forecast calls for less-than-normal rainfall through June, so he expects considerably less rice will be planted this year.
"Acreage-wise, I guess we’re going to end up with 20 to 30 percent reduction," Eskew said.
Last year, Jefferson Davis Parish farmers grew 81,280 acres of rice, according to the LSU AgCenter’s 2005 Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
"I just had a farmer walk out of here, and he and his brother are going to cut back on acres because of salt in the water," Eskew said.
Water problems are not the sole reason for an acreage reduction, Eskew explained, however. "We do have some idle ground just due to the economics of farming," he said.
Without rain, soybean acreage could be affected in a month when planting for that crop begins, Eskew said, adding, "I assume pastures will start to show some stress soon."
In Acadia Parish, farmer Nolton Hains said he will probably plant almost 700 acres of rice. He said he was delayed by a cold snap late last month.
"When they called for that cold weather, I waited," Hains said. "Normally, I’m almost finished by now."
Hains said he has always water-seeded his crop, but he said he’s going to try drill-planting a small field to learn the basics.
The Acadia Parish farmer said he thought about not planting a crop this year, but decided he had no choice.
"I’m too far in it to get out," Hains said.
Farmer Ross Hebert of Vermilion Parish made a similar observation.
"This is a year you can’t afford to plant, but you can’t afford not to," Hebert said.
He said the dry weather made planting easier. He is using a drill planter to drop seed on the ground and a drag chain to cover the seed with soil.
"I’m not drilling to the moisture, because there is none," Hebert said.
The Vermilion Parish grower said he will end up with 660 acres of rice. He said he had to forego planting 200 acres south of Henry because it still has a heavy salt concentration from Hurricane Rita’s storm surge.
"All my pump-off land is just fried," he said. "They will come back into production. It’s just going to take a lot of rain."
Since the hurricane six months ago, the salt content in Hebert’s fields has declined 40 to 60 percent, he said.
"It’s still too astronomically high to plant a crop," he said, explaining the last test showed salt levels in the range of 3,600 parts per million. The LSU AgCenter is advising farmers not to plant if their fields have levels higher than 750 ppm.
Worse yet, the lack of rainfall delays recovery of that soil, Hebert stressed.
Several other farmers in the Henry area aren’t able to plant any crop at all, and Hebert said the lack of farming activity in areas south of Henry is eerie. "It’s like a ghost town. There’s nothing moving," he said.
LSU AgCenter county agent Howard Cormier of Vermilion Parish said planting is proceeding slowly.
"We might have 15,000 acres planted," he said. "Usually at this time, we’re more than halfway – or approaching that point."
Cormier said most of the acreage reduction in his area is in the southern end of the Vermilion Parish. "In the north part of the parish, it’s business as usual," he said.
Lower Vermilion is affected by not only salty soil resulting from Hurricane Rita but also salt water in canals ordinarily used for flooding rice, Cormier explained.
"I hope we get half of last year’s acreage," he said.
Last year’s total rice acreage in Vermilion Parish was 76,361 acres.
Linscombe said Vermilion acreage could be limited to as little as 20,000 acres this year, and that alone would result in a statewide reduction of 10 percent.
LSU AgCenter county agent Dr. Ron Levy of Acadia Parish said warm weather in March helped farmers.
"We had close to 75 percent of our rice planted in March," he said. "This is the earliest we’ve had the majority of our rice planted."
Levy said he doesn’t expect the acreage decrease to be as severe in Acadia Parish.
"We’re probably looking at a reduction of 10 to 20 percent," he said.
Total acreage for Acadia Parish in 2005 was 82,563.
Keith Fontenot, an LSU AgCenter county agent in Evangeline Parish, said he expects the total acreage to fall considerably, compared to the 48,223 acres grown last year.
"We’re going to be down at least 35 percent in Evangeline Parish," Fontenot said.
Windy conditions have hampered water-seed planting and herbicide applications, as well as increasing pumping water replacement demands, he said, but rice that has been planted seems to be doing well.
LSU AgCenter rice specialist Dr. Johnny Saichuk said planting is just starting in North Louisiana. He said he doesn’t expect acreage there to drop as sharply as it will in South Louisiana.
Saichuk said some planting has been delayed because of complications, and that could interfere with any plans for making a second crop. April 20 generally is the recognized date for planting a field with prospects for a second-crop harvest, he said.
Keith Normand, an LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Landry Parish, said acreage could decrease by half in St. Landry. Last year, St. Landry Parish farmers planted 25,098 acres.
Normand also said farmers in his area who wanted to opt for another crop, such as grain sorghum or soybeans, are worried about the lack of moisture.
"If we don’t get any rain, we won’t be able to plant anything," Normand said. "Everything south of Highway 190 is too dry to plant a seed in the ground, no matter what it is."
Likewise, Jerry Whatley, an LSU AgCenter county agent in Calcasieu Parish, said a cutback on acreage in Calcasieu Parish is inevitable. The parish had 15,840 acres last year.
"We may end up with 10,000 acres," he said. "I think that would be optimistic."
He said expensive irrigation and lack of rainfall are crippling farmers.
Despite what experts termed unfavorable commodity prices in 2005, rice production and processing still meant more than $293 million to the state’s economy last year.
Writer: Bruce Schultz at (337) 788-8821 or email@example.com