Rice specialists see little change in 2001 acreage

U.S. rice farmers may increase their acreage slightly in 2001, but it's likely that planted acreage will remain close to last year's 3.03 million due to low prices, the cotton insurance program, and rising pumping costs.

Extension specialists attending the 17th annual Rice Seminar said they expect acreage to be up from 5 to 15 percent in each of the rice-producing states except for California, where plantings could be down 10 percent.

Texas growers are expected to stay close to their 2000 plantings of 210,000 acres, allowing the rice area to level off after declining by about 30,000 per year over the last three years.

“We expect the acreage to remain right around 210,000 acres,” says Arlen Klosterboer, Extension rice specialist with Texas A&M University in Beaumont. “It might go up or down 5,000 acres, but I doubt it will go below 200,000.”

Rising production costs have forced Texas producers to cut acres. “Our water costs are significantly higher than those of other states,” said Klosterboer. “We're having to deal with more pests. And most of our farmers are traditional rice farmers — they can't spread their costs over other crops.”

As in other states, 2000 rice yields set a new record due to ideal growing conditions. “Texas, of course, has been in a drought, but it didn't affect rice. It affected other crops, but not rice.”

The largest increase in acreage could occur in Louisiana where agronomists expect farmers to plant about 550,000 acres, a 15 percent increase from last year's 478,000. Louisiana's acreage fell dramatically last spring after one of the driest winters on record led to salt water intrusion problems in the coastal rice growing area.

“We have received more rain this year, but, in some areas, all of the salt water has not been flushed out,” said John Saichuk, Extension rice specialist with the LSU AgCenter in Crowley, La. “We're hoping we can get it all out before the season begins.”

Saichuk said 5 percent of the acreage in southern Louisiana had already been planted when he spoke at the 17th annual Rice Seminar on March 13. “We expected more to be planted this week, but the weather upset that. By next week, they should be going hot and heavy.”

In Arkansas, farmers could increase their plantings 2 to 5 percent to in “the neighborhood of 1.5 million acres,” Chuck Wilson, Extension rice specialist for Arkansas told participants at the seminar in Destin, Fla., which is sponsored by Valent USA and Kumiai Chemical of Japan

“Our harvested acreage was down about 10 percent to 1.4 million in 2000, but if you look at it compared to the long-term trend, it was about average,” said Wilson, who is based in Monticello. “1999's 1.6 million was our all-time high.”

In some respects, California growers are facing the same situation this year that producers in Arkansas and the other Mid-South states encountered in 1999 when higher rice prices brought more acres into production.

“Tight supplies of medium grain rice in 1998 and 1999 drove prices up,” said Jack Williams, rice specialist with the University of California. “In 2000, we grew too much, and prices went down. Prices dropped from $10 per hundredweight to 75 cents over the loan.”

What worries many California growers — and their lenders — is that the paths of production costs and prices seem to be diverging rather than following parallel lines.

“We're seeing higher costs due to greater pesticide use; higher water costs, averaging $54 or $55 per acre, straw management costs of $35 per acre and no return on that, and skyrocketing energy costs, which have a big impact on rice because our farmers use natural gas for drying.”

Growers are also faced with increased competition for water. “Some districts are talking about selling water to southern California,” said Williams. “If that happens, it's been estimated rice growers could lose 20 percent of their water.

“Acreage will be down,” he said. “Nobody knows how much, but I'm guessing it will drop 50,000 acres or about 10 percent.”

Two or three months ago, Joe Street, rice specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said he thought growers in his state would increase their acreage back to more normal levels after a sharp drop of nearly 33 percent in 2000.

“I'm no longer predicting that,” said Street, who is located at the Delta Research and Extension Center at Stoneville, Miss. “I think the acreage may go up slightly, maybe less than 5 percent.”

Street said low rice prices, the cotton insurance program — which provides a more lucrative price guarantee than that for rice — rising fuel costs and potentially higher nitrogen fertilizer costs are putting pressure on rice acres.

“One grower who has a 2,000-acre rice farm told me he may grow nothing but cotton this year,” he noted.

Missouri farmers could increase their rice acres by about 5 percent in 2001 because they continue to have good experience with producing the crop, according to Bruce Beck, area rice specialist in Poplar Bluff, Mo.

“The past three years we have had good weather for growing rice,” he said. “It's been dry, but we have had timely rains, low disease pressure and the weed control has been the best I have ever seen. We had record production of 5,700 pounds per acre in 2000.”

Beck said harvested acreage dropped from 184,000 in 1999 to 175,000 in 2000, primarily due to low prices. “Most of the blips we have had have been because of weather and price,” he noted. “If we could get prices up, we think we might get up to 300,000 acres of rice at some point. Acreage could go back up to 184,000 this year.”

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