Rice farmers struggle with hurricane aftereffects of salty surge, flooding rains

John K. Saichuk, Linscombe, Steven D., Collins, R. Keith, Gauthier, Stuart, Schultz, Bruce  |  10/3/2008 11:53:22 PM

News Release Distributed 10/03/08

The aftereffects of two hurricanes last month are still being felt in north and south Louisiana rice fields.

Along the coast in Vermilion Parish, farmers are contending with effects of the salty storm surge pushed inland by Hurricane Ike, which struck Sept. 14. And that could affect next year’s crop. North Louisiana farmers got pelted with almost two feet of rainfall from Hurricane Gustav, which hit Louisiana Sept. 1, and their yields in the ongoing harvest have been affected.

Rice farmer Durel Romaine of Vermilion Parish said he was cutting 55 barrels per acre on one field before Hurricane Gustav. But by the time he was able to return to the field, that figure dropped to 38 barrels. He said an electrical outage at his drying facility prevented him from returning to the harvest as soon as he would have preferred.

Romaine expects his ratoon (second) crop will be affected by both hurricanes.

He said he has 120 acres still flooded by salt water south of Kaplan. “It looks like it hadn’t damaged it yet.”

But Romaine said the biggest effect of the storms may be to the surface water sources that will make it difficult to grow a crop next year. Water in the canals has high salt levels that will require large amounts of rain to flush out, he said.

“Maybe I won’t lose much at all, but as of now we don’t really know. Everybody south of Highway 14 in Vermilion Parish has the same thing,” Romaine said.

His soybean crop was flooded also. “I would say there’s a 50-50 shot it won’t be harvested at all. If anything, I’ll break even with the beans because of insurance.”

Romaine said he grew his best crop in 2008. One of his fields was in the LSU AgCenter Verification Program, and it yielded a whopping 66 barrels per acre.

He credited recommendations of Dr. Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist, to apply fungicide and insecticides.

Saichuk said many farmers had high hopes this year for excellent yields that would offset expensive input costs of fuel and fertilizer. “We were set up to have the best rice crop we have ever made.”

Saichuk said many farmers managed an acceptable crop, although fields were heavily rutted in the process. Getting fields back in shape will be expensive.

Saichuk said fields were soaked and canals already full of water from late summer rains, and that will help fields recover that were flooded by salt water.

Saichuk said unlike the year of Hurricane Rita in 2005, the second rice crop has been late in maturing this year. That worked out to be an advantage because the rice grains have yet to mature, making them less susceptible to storm damage. “Rita wiped the second crop out that year.”

Farmer Sammy Noel said his fields were flooded also. “We got surge. We’ll just have to test the soil.”

He said high winds knocked grains on the ground. “It looks like the blackbirds have been through it.”

Vermilion Parish farmer David LaCour said he was finding that the surge didn’t flood all of his storage bins like Hurricane Rita did in 2005. And he was pleasantly surprised to learn that standing water in many of his fields had lower-than-expected salt levels.

“This was filled with rainwater before the storm,” LaCour said, standing at the edge of one field.

Hurricane Rita brought little rainfall, he said, and that may have resulted in the long recovery period.

One field showed a salt level of 2,200 parts per million. Farther to the south, the amount increased slightly to 3,200 ppm.

“That’s not too bad,” LaCour said.

On the road to Intracoastal City, fields harvested by LaCour and his father, Francis, were still under water.

“This is land we had just planted for the first time since 2005, and the yield was good,” LaCour said.

Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish, determined the salt level was at 13,500 ppm, and LaCour surmised it may be two more years before some of his fields can be planted again.

Gauthier said it’s too early to tell if farmers will be able to plant a crop on fields flooded by Ike’s surge.

“I think it’s a wait-and-see attitude,” he said. “They’re not really sure at this point.”

The affected area needs a winter of heavy rainfall to flush the salt from the fields and canals, he said. “A lot of these canals are very salty.”

The more immediate effect could be a lack of freshwater to pump onto fields that would normally be used to produce crawfish, he said, and even canals with low salt levels have poor quality because of low oxygen content.

Dr. Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station, said plans are being made to test soil, and sampling will be conducted in the next three weeks on fields hit with storm surge.

“It is highly probable that many of these fields will not be suitable for rice production in 2009,” Linscombe said.

But the hurricanes’ fury wasn’t limited to south Louisiana. The crop in the central and northeast portions of the state suffered significant damage from flooding after getting more than 20 inches of rain from Gustav.

Farmer John Owen of Richland Parish said he is managing to harvest 90 percent of his rice, far better than the days after Hurricane Gustav passed through the area. Just a few more inches of flooding waters would have ruined his crop, which was his most expensive to grow, he said. “It was the most precarious situation I’ve ever been in.”

Some farmers lost their entire crop, he said, while losses of 20-30 percent are not uncommon. “I just got lucky. There are some real horror stories out there.”

He said his yields ranged widely from 5,000 to 8,000 pounds per acre. He was unable to pick up all the rice that got knocked down.

Owen has used tracks on his combines for years, and he said this year the difference was obvious by enabling him to get into muddy fields with minimal impact to his zero-grade, laser-leveled fields.

Owen said his soybean crop didn’t fare as well, and he estimates 300 acres out of 500 won’t be harvested.

Keith Collins, LSU AgCenter county agent in Richland Parish, said rice losses are significant but not as bad as they seemed the first days after Gustav.

“When it’s all said and done, we’ll have a 30 percent loss,” he said.

He said one farmer had 300 of 750 acres at a total loss, and the yield was half of the farmer’s average. “He was probably as hard hit as anybody.”

Collins said farmers haven’t had a chance to catch their breath yet to figure out next year’s plan.

“It’s all about price.”

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Contacts: Johnny Saichuk at (337) 788-7547, or jsaichuk@agcenter.lsu.edu

Stuart Gauthier at (337) 898-4335, or sgauthier@agcenter.lsu.edu

Steve Linscombe at (337) 788-7531, slinscombe@agcenter.lsu.edu

Keith Collins at (318) 728-3216, kcollins@agcenter.lsu.edu

Writer: Bruce Schultz at (337) 788-7531, bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu

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