U.S. rice producers say the farm bill, input costs, water availability, regulation and quality issues are top concerns for the rice industry, during interviews at the USA Rice Outlook Conference in Coronado, Calif.
Keith Davis produces wild rice for Uncle Ben’s, as well as commodity rice, on K&S Farming around Yuba City, Calif. Davis’ 2012 rice crop “did okay. It wasn’t the biggest crop I’ve had, but it averaged about 8,400 pounds to the acre.”
Weather conditions prevented an early planting, noted Davis, “but we might have been fortunate that it was later. My early fields were a lot more affected by the heat. Later rice, planted around May 15 to May 20, was very good.”
For Davis, the biggest issue facing the rice industry today is the lack of progress on a new farm bill. “It’s not just for me, but there is a lot of pressure on young farmers who have just gotten into this business. I don’t know how they’re going to cope with it. With the new banking regulations, there’s not nearly as much leeway as there was when farming got bad in the 1980s, which is when I got started.
“You used to be able to carry forward debt. You can’t do that anymore. If you can’t perform, they’re going to come after every asset you have, and most likely you are not going to get a loan unless you have some really good backup.
“The risks are so great, and the cost of production is so high. Our rice market fortunately has been high enough to sustain this over the last seven or eight years. But it’s different with all the trouble in the Middle East and a farm bill that’s changing the landscape. They’re shifting money out of the southern and the California rice industry to the Midwest.
“Fortunately, in a lot of the areas in the South, they can grow corn and soybeans. In California the humidity is so low, soybeans won’t set. In my area, the soils are too tight for corn.”
Davis says the farm bill should supply a safety net “which to my way of thinking is to make your financial institution and the people you do business with feel secure about lending you money to operate. Very few people have enough money where they can operate just out of their own pocket.”
Jimmy Hoppe, who produces soybeans and rice in Iowa, La., sees quality issues as his biggest concern. “We had blast problems in Louisiana this year. Our Extension and research specialists have told us it was the worst year for blast that we’ve had in 30 years. We did have some issues with yield loss. And any time you have issues with blast, as well as heat, you’re going to have quality issues.”
An even bigger problem is the impact that quality is having on U.S. rice customers, noted Hoppe. “Our customers are saying that our quality is not what they want. At this point, it’s not what it’s been, and we’re losing in that area. We’re also seeing some competition because of that. It’s a major concern for the rice industry as a whole.”
Rising input costs are also big issues for Louisiana rice producers, according to Hoppe. “Water cost and fuel costs have gone through the roof.”
Hoppe will plant the same number of acres to rice next year, but will plant all Jasmine types this year. “We have some markets developing, and were able to contract rice and get an upfront price. We know what were getting, we know what our input costs are, so we are going to go that route.”
Hoppe sees a good opportunity for further development of aromatic rice with the development of Jazzman-2, which is very close in quality and taste characteristics to the Jasmine types which are typically imported. Aromatic rice varieties comprise about 90 percent of rice imported into the United States.
“Before Jazzman-2, we were not able to compete with the Jasmine that was being imported,” Hoppe said. “We have a variety now that can compete with it, and that customers will buy.”
Seth Fiack, who produces medium-grain rice and walnuts around Ordbend, Calif., says his biggest concerns are ever-mounting layers of regulation, especially regarding air quality and pesticides. “This whole arsenic thing that went down was nothing more than a lot of misinformation coming out about U.S. rice. It’s a whole lot of slander, and you can even go after them.”
Fiack doesn’t plan major changes in his crop mix next year. “We might add shorter varieties on the first couple of fields we plant to avoid some of that weather that seems to be hitting in the middle of November instead of late November.”
Mark Wimpy, who farms rice, soybeans, wheat and corn on W&W Farms, around Jonesboro, Ark., believes he avoided problems with poor milling yield by planting early this year. “If I would’ve been two weeks later on planting, I would’ve had some milling issues like some of my neighbors did,” said Wimpy who plants mostly Clearfield varieties, “and a little bit of Jupiter and Roy J.”
Wimpy says the rice industry’s biggest challenge “is exporting our product. U.S. rice has always been thought of as the premier rice in the world. But the weather has thrown a few things at us the last few years. Our milling has been down. Customers are looking elsewhere.”
Wimpy believes that variety selection is a part of the milling problem. “Our varieties may not be as tough as they used to be. We’ve gone for maximum yield without putting in the good cooking qualities. I think we need to take a step back and take a new look at that. We need to produce a crop that the consumer wants to buy.”
Next year, Wimpy will expand his corn acres slightly. “But I have a rice farm. I have a limited amount of acreage that I can grow corn on, and I‘m going to grow it on those acres. My rice production will be down a little bit.”
Steven Schuler, who farms 500 acres of medium-grain rice around Woodland, Calif., got started about 10 days late on planting rice in 2012, but managed to produce a good crop. “We had a lot of weed issues. It seemed like we had a lot of resistant weeds this year, with watergrass and sedges.”
The weather contributed to at least a portion of the problem, Schuler noted. “It was wet so we couldn’t get our ground worked properly.”
Schuler’s biggest rice production concerns are price stability and water issues. “There’s always pressure when there’s less water available.”