WASHINGTON — Adam Habetz and south Louisiana’s more than 1,000 other rice farmers worry that their federal support funds and many of their rice farms will soon be gone.
The federal farm bill currently undergoing U.S. Senate floor debate would eliminate billions of dollars in direct payments to farm landowners and take away federal support intended to offset the destabilization of rice prices.
Habetz, who has his Calcasieu Parish farm near Vinton, fears he may need to get out of the rice industry completely and focus on other commodities like cattle.
“I’m pretty scaled down right now and that might force me to scale out,” Habetz said of the farm bill.
Both senators from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, are pledging to do what they can to help rice farmers through potential amendments, but the direct payments to landowners are still expected to come to an end. The current farm bill expires after September.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Tuesday that the axing of the direct payments that were started in 1996 to help transition farmers off of greater government reliance will save the country $15 billion over 10 years by cutting out the “outdated government subsidies.”
The federal farm bill primarily focuses on supporting the nation’s largest crop commodities in corn and soybeans that are grown throughout the country, but mostly in the Midwest. Critics complain that crops like rice, cotton and peanuts are penalized in the pending legislation.
“Direct payments will be eliminated as I understand it,” said Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain. “I know the rice and cotton farmers have big concerns. We do have some work to do to basically strengthen the position of rice and cotton and other things.”
Arguing that “rice is a very big proportion of what we do” in Louisiana, Strain said efforts are ongoing to ensure that Southern states with diverse commodities are treated more fairly.
“On property insurance, we pay higher premiums and get less coverage than Midwestern states,” Strain said.
With the elimination of the direct payments, the farm bill is focusing on improving the insurance protection and federal support for crops when the yields are poor, said Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU Agricultural Center’s rice research station in Crowley, which would be helpful for corn and soybean farmers.
The problem for rice farmers is that the yields are not the problem, Linscombe said. Instead, the main issue for rice farmers is price fluctuations, including the current low price on rice, and the farm bill does not help there, he said.
“Because rice is grown with expensive flood irrigation systems, they very seldom have a huge crop failure,” Linscombe said.
In the past, rice farmers have taken advantage of farm program “countercyclical payments” and other federal supports when prices are a big issue, he said, but “that is basically not addressed now.”
“Historically, that is what our farm bills have done,” Linscombe said. “They’ve had safety nets.”
Rice is the “crop engine for southwestern Louisiana,” Linscombe said, with about 415,000 acres of rice farms in the southern parts of the state.
LSU Agricultural Center rice specialist Johnny Saichuk said the loss of the federal direct payments will force many Louisiana rice farmers out of the industry.
The rice farmers use the federal funds essentially as “cash flow” in order to get the bank loans to pay for their raw materials each year, he said.
“A lot of guys are not going to get the loans,” Saichuk said. “Rice prices are not very good right now and it’s very expensive to grow.”
Habetz said the legislation in its current format is “really going to hurt us.”
“I honestly don’t know what we can do,” Habetz said. “We bank on that (federal support) every year just for planning our budgets.”
In Washington, Landrieu last week began touting her efforts to help the rice farmers.
“I share the concerns of Louisiana’s rice growers that the legislation in its current form does not provide the necessary safety net for rice, particularly compared to other commodities,” Landrieu stated in her announcement. “As the Senate moves forward on this legislation, I will continue pushing to improve provisions that affect our rice growers, so that we pass a bill that is as strong as possible for all Louisiana farmers.”
Vitter declined comment when asked in person on Tuesday.
But, in a prepared statement later in the day, Vitter criticized the farm bill’s total spending, including on food stamps, before touching on Louisiana.
“I am working with other southern senators to get our concerns addressed and help ensure it works for our rice farmers,” Vitter added.
As for potential changes to the legislation, Saichuk said he has some optimism progress can be made, but he remains concerned.
“It would be unfortunate if the (rice) industry is just left to go,” Vitter stated.