Louisiana rice growers say assistance needed now

A veteran rice leader and producer says if the government can find $752 million for emergency assistance to livestock producers, it can find $70 million to save the Louisiana rice industry. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman recently authorized $752 million in emergency assistance to livestock producers hit hard by drought this summer.

John Denison, an Iowa, La., rice grower and chairman of the Louisiana Farm Bureau's rice advisory committee, told more than 150 rice producers at a meeting in Jennings, La., the money will mean the difference between many farmers making it through this season and going broke.

“This is as bad as I've seen it,” Denison said. Before a packed room he said few farmers can cash flow at a rice price of $3.75 per hundredweight.

“There's just not that kind of profit margin in rice,” Denison said. “The price decrease and the reduction of about a dollar per hundredweight in government supports have combined to put the squeeze on everybody.”

The emergency assistance, which would be targeted to Louisiana rice growers specifically, is a small amount, he said, considering the magnitude of the state's rice industry to local economies.

“On the national level, this is a small amount when you consider the economic impact of the Louisiana rice industry,” Denison said. “The size is relatively small compared to Washington expenditures.”

While rice growers were meeting, Rep. Chris John, D-La., introduced a companion bill in the House that mirrored a bill put forth by Louisiana Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu. The Breaux-Landrieu bill calls for a one-time disaster payment of $2.42 per hundredweight to Louisiana rice producers. John said both pieces of legislation are essential if Louisiana rice growers are to stay in business.

“A viable economic assistance package will be a necessary first step toward a sustainable rice industry for years to come,” John said. “Our farmers are facing some of the lowest prices ever.”

In addition to the proposed economic disaster assistance legislation, John has asked USDA to purchase rice for domestic feeding programs and foreign food aid endeavors.

Many rice growers at the meeting find themselves in similar financial straits. Chris Krielow of Jennings grows 700 acres of rice. He said farmers can't cut back acreage next year because much of their debt is tied to production.

“We need the money to get us through this year,” Krielow said. “In my operation I'll be facing a deficit because we just can't raise rice at these kinds of prices and service debt.”

Krielow said despite projections of as much as a 40 percent reduction in rice acres planted in Louisiana next year, many growers have no choice but to remain in production.

“We have debt load based on acres,” he said. “I don't believe cutting back on acreage is the answer. Many of us are tenant farmers, so the land will be planted by somebody. I've been doing this for 27 years, so I'm going to go again. You don't just stop the train because you might not get it started again.”

Michael Danna writes for the Louisiana Farm Bureau.

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