Rice harvest disappoints farmers

Farmer Donald Berken of Lacassine, La., had anticipated that his rice crop would bring a handsome yield this year. But the harvest for Berken and many others has been anything but a bumper crop. Average yields from last year appear to be down, while production costs were up, according to LSU AgCenter experts.

“I was hoping it would be good, but it's not panning out that way,” Berken said between hauling loads off a 57-acre field, explaining that one field brought in just 31 barrels an acre — below the current state average and well off last year's record pace for the state.

By last week, Berken had harvested about 75 percent of his crop and said he would try to make up for some of the lost yield on this crop with a second crop.

“On most of the earlier harvested fields, we will,” Berken said.

Eddie Eskew, an LSU AgCenter county agent in Jefferson Davis Parish, said the average yield appears to be about 34 to 36 barrels an acre. That's 15 percent less than last year's record harvest, he said, adding that this year's costs of production were 30 percent higher.

“It's disappointing and discouraging,” Eskew said. “The yields are off, but we're still attributing it to the stress of all the rain in May and June — and the lack of sunshine.”

Inadequate sunlight from cloudy weather reduced the amount of carbohydrates produced by rice plants, Eskew said, adding that rainfall in June also interfered with pollination.

For a few farmers, yields were excellent — in the mid-40s — but they were dismal for others, Eskew said.

The expert also pointed out that harvest is 10 days behind most years, which could prevent some fields from being put into a second crop.

Ron Levy, an LSU AgCenter county agent in Acadia Parish, said harvest in that area is almost 95 percent done, with yields 10 percent off from last year. That could signal a less-than-average yield for the ratoon, Levy said.

Keith Fontenot, LSU AgCenter county agent for Evangeline Parish, said it's a different picture in his area.

“Yields are pretty good,” he said, averaging around 37 barrels with three-fourths of the crop harvested.

Some farmers in Evangeline Parish are reporting yields of 40 to 45 barrels an acre, according to Fontenot.

“Some of this later-planted rice is pretty good,” he said. But the earlier rice was marked by uneven maturity, Fontenot said.

In Vermilion Parish, the harvest is off by 3 barrels to 4 barrels an acre, according to Howard Cormier, an LSU AgCenter county agent there. Many farmers who usually harvest more than 40 barrels an acre have reported cutting in the mid-30s, he said.

Cool weather early in the season probably played a role in the less-than-average crop, Cormier said.

“I think most of them will try a second crop to recoup their costs,” Cormier said.

As for good news, dry fields enabled farmers to harvest without rutting up their fields, he said. “Many farmers were able to drive the 18-wheelers into the field,” he said.

Further complicating the economic situation, not only are rice yields down, so are rice prices and the amounts paid for government supports, according to LSU AgCenter economist Gene Johnson.

“This year, the world market price is increasing and the Loan Deficiency Payment is shrinking,” he said. So buyers are waiting to see how the market moves. “The rice market seems to be stalled and needs a jumpstart of demand to spark the market.”

Johnson said USDA could stimulate the market by executing commitments to sell 81,000 metric tons under the PL 480 program.

“The paddy market continues to be a situation of offsetting pressures of low supply and light demand. Thus the result is a market that continues in the doldrums.”

The Texas harvest is behind schedule, and the yields are about 10 percent below average, similar to the yield in Louisiana, Johnson said.

The overseas market is dominated by Thailand, which is likely to get the next Iraqi tender for 100,000 metric tons. Johnson said other countries don't have rice supplies for export and that Thailand's rice is cheaper than U.S. rice.

So when should a farmer sell his rice? “That's a tough one to call,” Johnson said. “It just depends on the situation.”

The economist said it might be a good idea to wait on a sale if a farmer has adequate drying and storage capability.

Johnson said he generally urges farmers to sell their crop in stages, similar to diversifying stock investments.

Bruce Schultz writes for the LSU AgCenter. e-mail: [email protected].

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