Rice farmers face challenges in global market

Rice farmers have long worried about bugs, weeds and plant diseases, but these days the local rice industry is just as concerned about world markets, Washington politics and the growing consumer demand for environmentally friendly food.

The annual LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station Field Day on Wednesday was a chance for agricultural researchers to show off developments in rice breeding and innovative farming practices, but much of the day was also spent discussing national and international issues that are affecting the rice fields of rural Louisiana.

One of the newest issues is sustainable rice farming, a move to more environmentally friendly farming practices being pushed in part by cereal maker Kellogg’s.

“Kellogg’s is a very large customer for Louisiana rice,” said Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station near Crowley.

Linscombe said the AgCenter has been working with Kellogg’s for the past three years to develop a sustainable rice program for Louisiana growers — a mix of new practices and a recognition of sustainable techniques already in place.

The general idea is to use less water, fertilizer and other resources to produce a rice crop that meets Kellogg’s sustainability standards, which are in turn being influenced by Kellogg’s biggest customer — Wal-Mart.

Kellogg’s Chief Sustainability Officer Diane Holdorf said Wal-Mart, in working to meet its own sustainability goals, is interested in farm-level details from Kellogg’s suppliers on such issues as water use, fertilizer use and pesticide management.

“This has been a journey we’ve been on for some time,” said Holdorf, who spoke at the Wednesday event.

While farmers cater to changing consumer demands, the rice industry is also working to compete in an ever-changing global marketplace.

Linscombe said about 45 percent of U.S. rice is exported, mostly to Mexico and other Latin American countries.

But that market could be threatened by large Asian producers and by a concern by Latin American buyers over the quality of U.S. rice, said Michael Creed, with Houston-based rice brokerage Creed Rice Company.

“We continue to have complaints from this destination (Latin America) in terms of quality,” Creed told farmers who gathered for the annual field day forum. “… It’s a growing problem, not only in Latin America, and we are starting to see it in other areas as well.”

Linscombe said the quality concerns are over such issues as texture and how the rice cooks, characteristics where there has been a trade off in the effort to produce higher rice yields.

“U.S. rice used to be the standard for quality. We are no longer there,” he said.

Still, U.S. rice exports have been pushing into new territory, and a recent free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia has opened that country up as an attractive new rice market, said Bob Cummings, of the USA Rice Federation.

Cummings said the federation has also been fighting to gain a foothold in China for U.S. rice.

“There is a place in China, we believe, for high-quality U.S. rice,” he said.

In the short term, one of the most-pressing issues for the rice industry and agriculture in general is the failure of Congress to enact a new federal farm bill, legislation that sets U.S. farm policy, including subsidies and other programs aimed at keeping farmers in business.

The legislation has stalled over a partisan dispute with funding for the food stamp program.

The current farm bill expires in the fall, but Congress could vote to extend the existing farm bill for another year.

“Right now, it’s kind of hard to tell exactly what’s going to happen,” said Michael Salassi, a rice economist with the LSU AgCenter.

Louisiana Agricultural and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said Congress needs to push forward and enact a new farm bill to give farmers — and the bankers they borrow money from — the confidence of knowing crop protections are set in stone.

Strain also told the crowd of farmers who gathered Wednesday that they might have to take an “unpopular political stance” in the emerging immigration debate in an effort to keep in place temporary worker programs that make it easier for farmers to tap a critical source of migrant labor.