Historical Perspective of Southwest Louisiana Rice Production

Steven Linscombe  |  12/19/2012 2:12:04 AM

Early Combine

Mr. J.B. Trahan of Jennings, a longtime employee of the Federal Land Bank, recently donated a document to the Rice Research Station library. The title of the document was “Appraisal Study of Rice Area Louisiana,” and it is dated August 1946. It was a summary of a study on the economics of rice production in southwest Louisiana developed for internal use in the Farm Credit Administration. Below are excerpts from the document that provide a perspective on rice production 66 years ago in the region. As points of reference, today, long-grain rice is selling for $23-$24 per barrel, the average yield per acre in 2012 in Louisiana was more than 40 barrels per acre, and rice farm land in southwest Louisiana normally sells for $1,800-$2,000 per acre. In 1946, the typical rotation in the region was rice/pasture. While this is still a fairly common system, much more common are rice/soybeans and rice/crawfish combinations. The United States currently produces more than 2 percent of the world’s rice, and our prices are still largely governed by world production and world price levels. This document was written shortly after the end of the World War II, which significantly affected rice demand and thus prices received by producers. In addition, during this period, combines were just being introduced, and there was a big question on whether this method of harvest was economically feasible.

Here are some excerpts from the 1946 document:

Rice production in the United States is on an export basis. Domestic production of rice has increased about 40 percent since 1940, and since the United States produces only about 1 percent of the world’s production of rice, it is evident that domestic rice prices will be largely governed by world production and world price levels. It is reasonable to assume that the prices received in the immediate prewar years (1935-39) are more typical of long-term rice prices than the higher prices received in the war years. Records of prices received for rice were obtained from local rice milling companies and the Bureau of Agricultural Economics covering the 11-year period 1934 through 1944. The average price received for rice for the five-year period 1935-39 varied by reporting agencies from $2.60 to $2.80 per barrel, excluding benefit and other soil conservation payments.

Records showing the acreage planted to rice and the average yield per acre on an annual basis for the 10-year period 1936 through 1945 were obtained for the Roanoke-Welsh area of Jefferson Davis Parish, the Kaplan area of Vermilion Parish, and the Lake Charles area of Calcasieu Parish. The records for the Roanoke-Welsh area show a change from a rotation of one year in rice and two years in pasture in the immediate prewar years to a rotation of rice about every other year during the 1941-45 period. This change in the crop rotation practice was accompanied by an average reduction of about two barrels in the yield of rice per acre during the past five years, even with the increased use of fertilizer from an average of approximately 100 pounds per acre to 200 pounds per acre. The investigation of these conditions resulted in the conclusion that under normal conditions the farms in the Welsh-Roanoke area could be expected to have about 40 percent of the acreage cropped to rice each year, and yields would approach those prevailing in the immediate prewar years.

In the Kaplan area, records of yields per acre and the percentage of the acreage cropped to rice each year have remained fairly constant from 1936 to date. For this area, approximately 45 percent of the acreage in the farm has been cropped each year and the yield has averaged approximately 12 barrels per acre. In the 1938-1940 period, crop land sales prices in the Kaplan area ranged from $40 to $55 per acre and in 1941, $55 per acre was the usual price paid. The study group placed a value of $50 per acre on the farm selected for study in the Kaplan area, and the normal farm income indicates that a typical operator would be justified in paying that price for the farm.

For the 1945 crop season, between 20 percent and 25 percent of the rice crop in the Rice Belt was harvested by combine harvesters. This method of harvesting rice is relatively new in the area. The principal advantages of combines appear to be in the amount of labor saved, particularly when adequate farm labor is not available. Some objections raised in connection with the use of combines include the loss of rice straw for wintering cattle and the scattering of noxious weed and grass seeds.

According to local informed opinion, there are advantages and disadvantages in the use of combines, probably the most important factor affecting future use being the availability and cost of farm labor. There is speculation locally as to whether the present high cost of combining and drying rice can be reduced sufficiently to justify continuing this method of harvesting if prices received for rice approach prewar levels. After more experience is gained with combines during a more normal period, it should be possible to determine the extent of use and relative advantages of this method of harvesting rice.

Things have changed somewhat in 66 years, but a constant then and now are the economic challenges facing Louisiana rice producers.

Permission granted, December 15, 2012, by B. Leonards (LA Farm & Ranch) to republish article on www.lsuagcenter.com.

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