Agribusiness leaders hear latest about state conditions

Johnny Morgan  |  11/21/2009 1:52:59 AM

News Distributed 11/20/09

LAFAYETTE, La. – Current trends affecting Louisiana food and agriculture highlighted a recent meeting of state leaders in agriculture and agribusiness.

The state’s sugarcane growers are facing challenges on multiple levels, said Dr. Ben Legendre, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist and director of the AgCenter’s Audubon Sugar Institute.

“On the international level, India, one of the world’s largest sugar producers, will need to import six million tons of sugar this year, which is pushing the price up to over 30 cents per pound,” Legendre said. “However, since sugar is priced throughout the year, this price will not be applied to all of this year’s harvest.”

On the state level producers face a new requirement that effectively reduces the weight of their trucks on the roads, and on the farm level, acreage has been reduced because of last year’s hurricanes.

The meeting was co-sponsored by the Agribusiness Council of Louisiana and hosted by the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.

Louisiana is the number one shrimp-producing state in the United States, said Dr. Lucinda Lampila with the LSU AgCenter Sea Grant Program.

“We are also number one in oysters, crawfish, Dungeness crabs and menhaden,” she said. “Yet will still import over 1.2 billion pounds of shrimp.”

When we go to a restaurant and ask where the seafood came from and are told the Gulf, we forget to ask, “which gulf,” Lampila said.

Dr. Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station in Crowley, gave an update on the state’s rice industry and shocked some when he said Budweiser is the largest consumer of U.S.-produced rice.

“About half of the parishes do produce rice, with the Acadiana area being the primary rice producing area,” he said.

Of the crops discussed at the forum, Linscombe said, rice is the most stable, even though it is susceptible to damage from hurricanes.

Louisiana cow-calf producers are in better shape this year than last because of lower input costs, said Dr. Ross Pruitt, an LSU AgCenter economist.

“This is the first time that all livestock sectors have cut back,” Pruitt said. “Slaughter weights have gone up with beef, so we’re producing more beef with fewer head.”

He also said he’s hopeful the AgCenter’s soon-to-be-unveiled MarketMaker program will help producers connect better with potential consumers.

Dr. Mike Strain, Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture, cited what he called “very impressive statistics” of agriculture in Louisiana.

“We are second in the nation in aquaculture – a $1 billion business – second in sugarcane and third in rice,” Strain said. “There are some things that we have to do better, though. Things like being better stewards of the natural resources.”

He said nearly 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is used in agriculture.

On the negative side, Strain said, “We’re looking at about $275 million in crop damages this year, following $1 billion in storm damage last year. We’ll probably harvest the smallest cotton crop since the Civil War.”

Agriculture and biofuels will play an important role in the new economy, said Dr. Mark Zappi, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

“As a farmer you’re going to be making a decision of whether you’re growing a food crop or a fuel crop this year,” Zappi said.

State Rep. Fred Mills, of Parks, who is president of Farmers and Merchants Bank and serves on the house agriculture committee, assured the audience agriculture has friends in Baton Rouge and mentioned the need for improvements in food safety.

“Right now, less than one percent of the seafood that’s imported into Louisiana is physically inspected by the Food and Drug Administration,” he said. “We have to continue to tell people that we put together a safe, fresh product that’s good to eat and safe to eat.”

Other speakers on the program included Kevin Boone, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Financial Development Department, who discussed rural development in Louisiana.

“Loans and grants for rural development this year in Louisiana amount to about $900 million,” Boone said of federal support for rural areas.

Boone said his office funds police and fire departments and apartment complexes through loans and grants.

Johnny Morgan

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