Overall, the 2020 rice crop was better than 2019, but for many farmers it was a difficult year.
For the second year in a row, the crop was dominated by weather. In 2019, Tropical Storm Barry hit when much of the rice was in pollination, and it was followed by steady rainfall that caused widespread disease problems.
In 2020, four tropical systems ripped through Louisiana. Each storm caused problems for rice in the field. Hurricane Laura even caused problems after rice was cut and in storage.
Dustin Harrell, LSU AgCenter extension rice specialist, said Louisiana farmers planted 476,497 acres in 2020, compared to 418,661 in 2019, representing a 13.8% increase.
Harrell said Acadia Parish remained the No. 1 rice-growing parish at 85,000 acres, compared to Jefferson Davis at approximately 82,000.
Morehouse Parish moved to No. 4 with 50,000 acres, edging out Evangeline Parish with 48,000.
Morehouse Parish had the largest medium-grain rice crop with 13,000 acres. Statewide, Louisiana farmers grew 49,000 acres of medium-grain rice, one-tenth of the overall crop.
All but two rice-growing parishes — Franklin and Beauregard — showed acreage increases. Rice acres in Madison Parish almost tripled, going from 4,424 in 2019 to 12,134 in 2020, while Natchitoches Parish increased by sixfold, going from 768 acres in 2019 to 4,713.
Harrell echoed others by saying the year was going well into the harvest.
“The growing season in southwest Louisiana was one of the top three years,” he said. “We were on par to having the second highest yields ever.”
Harrell estimates only 5% of the crop remained in the field when Hurricane Laura hit on Aug. 27. In south Louisiana, much of the stored grain was threatened when Laura knocked out the extensive electrical infrastructure, requiring portable generators to run aeration systems to dry the freshly cut rice. The tops of many bins and storage facilities were blown away, exposing rice to rain.
“All in all, if you factor in how good the year was, minus how it was on the very end, it was still better than last year,” Harrell said.
Harrell estimated yields averaged 7,100 pounds per acre, (157 bushels or 44 barrels), compared to 6,300 pounds last year (140 bushels or 39 barrels).
For many farmers in north Louisiana, their crop suffered, but many farmers did well, depending on the weather in their areas.
“We took a whooping this year,” said Bruce Garner, county agent in Morehouse and West Carroll parishes.
Garner said rice farmers in his region were hurt by hurricanes Laura and Delta. He said some farmers were barely able to get yields of 90 bushels (25 barrels) with the hybrid XL745.
“It was actually kind of heartbreaking,” he said.
Garner said the price of other commodities drove many farmers to plant more rice this year, and the Morehouse Parish acreage may remain static. He said the Kennedy Rice Mill at Mer Rouge is encouraging farmers to plant rice, and that could be a major factor in their planting decisions.
Jason Waller of Mer Rouge said he had a tough year from the start with wet field conditions that hampered planting. The crop progressed well, he said, but then came Tropical Storm Cristobal and hurricanes Laura, Beta, Delta and Zeta.
“We’ve had 31 inches of rain since Laura,” Waller said.
Rice cut before Laura was yielding 230-240 bushels (63-66 barrels) but that dropped off to 160-170 bushels (44-47 barrels), he said.
He expects less rice and cotton to be planted in Louisiana, but more soybeans.
Waller said his fields are still wet, and he is anticipating planting next year could be difficult again unless the winter is drier than usual.
He said Laura arrived just as some rice was pollinating, and then winds from the other storms beat up the rice, followed by an inch of rain from Zeta.
“There’s not much you can do,” Waller concluded.
Because of variations in the weather, there were farmers who were lucky in north Louisiana. In Madison Parish, Garrett Marsh said he was pleased with his 400 acres of row rice.
“It did really well,” he said. “We managed to get most of it out before the hurricanes hit.”
But Marsh said he knew several farmers who weren’t as fortunate, those whose crops were knocked down by at least one tropical weather event.
Keith Collins, LSU AgCenter county agent in Richland Parish, said yields were down by half on many fields.
Dennis Burns, county agent in Tensas Parish, said rice there escaped much of the damage.
“Overall, it was a pretty good year,” he said. “Even my last grower was pleased with his overall.”
He said some farmers had rice that matured early, and it fell from Laura’s winds. “They got it all out without it going down much,” Burns said.
Scott Franklin with Holly Ridge Rice and Grain Terminal near Rayville said some yields were poor because of hurricane damage. He said milling yields were good early in the harvest but fell sharply in October.
Franklin said some fields had lodged rice from thunderstorms before any hurricanes hit.
Todd Fontenot, county agent in Evangeline Parish, said most farmers were optimistic as the year started well.
“It looked like we were going to have a perfect year,” he said.
The parish was spared from much of the hurricane damage, although northern parts of the parish flooded from Delta’s rain. However, farmers in Allen Parish had damage, he said.
“It ended up being a pretty good crop for most people,” he said.
Disease and insect pressure were light, he said.
Most of the rice in the parish was harvested before Laura hit, Fontenot said.
He said the second-crop acreage in Evangeline has dipped below 10,000 acres, so the effects of Delta’s winds weren’t as significant there.
Jimmy Meaux, county agent in Calcasieu and Jefferson Davis parishes, said Laura’s wind wreaked havoc on agriculture infrastructure in his area.
“It seemed like water was the main issue with Delta,” he said.
He said a large part of the second crop was submerged.
“Between Iowa and Lake Charles, rice stayed underwater for four or five days,” he said.
Farmers Rice Mill was knocked out of commission by Laura, and it came back online two months later.
Adam Habetz, who farms in Calcasieu Parish near Vinton, said his first crop had an average yield. He got it out of the field just days before Laura slammed the area.
He said his second crop was beaten up by Delta.
“The green kernels just turned black,” he said, but he planned to harvest the crop to see what it yields.
Habetz said the roof of his house was blown away and several windows were knocked out by Laura. Also, a new barn was knocked down.
Yet Habetz said he still feels lucky.
“I’ve seen a lot worse,” he said.
Vince Deshotel, county agent in St. Landry Parish, described 2020 as “probably an average year. Nothing exceptional.”
He said yields averaged around 40 barrels. Some areas in the parish had a better year, he said. However, there were farmers who reported their best year ever.
Deshotel said heavy rain interfered with pollination, which probably depressed yields.
Most rice in the parish was harvested before Laura hit Louisiana, he said, but some that was still in the field got knocked down by winds.
He said rice some second-crop fields were lost to winds from Delta, but ratoon yields of 19 barrels were not unusual.
Jeremy Hebert, county agent in Acadia Parish, said the second crop in west Acadia was damaged by Delta.
“It’s beat up bad,” he said. “It shredded a bunch of rice.”
He said some rice was damaged in the eastern part of the parish, too.
While some farmers have been OK with the second crop, Hebert said others were having to make a difficult choice at harvest.
“I don’t even know if it’s worth cutting,” he said.
The year got off to a good start, but with low prices farmers needed good yields, he said.
“So, we go from a great rice season and then disaster after disaster hit,” he said.
Hebert expects acreage to stay about the same in Acadia, which remained the No. 1 parish for rice acreage in 2020 at 85,710 acres. Jefferson Davis Parish was second with 77,850 acres, and Evangeline was third with 47,964.
Farmer Jackie Loewer of Acadia Parish said his 2020 rice crop was good, but he knows other farmers hurt worse by the storm had significant losses.
“It’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s not as bad as we feared,” he said.
Loewer said the first crop was good. He had high hopes for the second crop, and he was afraid the ratoon loss would be bad after Delta. But as he looked closer, his fields were full of chaff and blank grains.
“It probably wasn’t that good to start with,” he said.
In Vermilion Parish, Andrew Granger, the county agent, said 2020 was far better than 2019.
“It was an excellent crop until the storms came,” he said.
The first-crop yield was above average for most farmers, with an average around 45 barrels, or 162 bushels.
By the time Laura hit Louisiana, almost all the first crop was harvested. Then Delta struck and probably reduced the second-crop yield by half. He said most farmers would have cut at least 15 barrels (54 bushels).
Granger said second-crop rice can be the profit for many farmers. He said now farmers will be looking for crawfish sales to make up the difference, but there was a concern that the crawfish could be threatened by bad, low-oxygen water from Delta.
Farmer Christian Richard of Vermilion Parish said winds from Delta knocked much of his rice off the panicles. One second-crop field he cut only yielded 8 barrels (29 bushels), and he left 800 acres of 2,000 uncut because the rice was beaten up so badly.
Combines harvest a first crop in Evangeline Parish. While many farmers reported a good harvest, hurricanes and tropical storms reduced the yields for many farmers throughout the state.
Freshly harvested rice is exposed to the elements after Hurricane Laura’s winds blew the tops off grain bins at a farm in Calcasieu Parish. The winds also blew over a train of rail cars, which can be seen in the distance. Numerous bins were damaged from the storm. Power was lost throughout southwest Louisiana, and farmers had to use generators to run drying systems.