When the new rice growing season rolls around, Johnny Saichuk probably will do what he has done for the last few decades: try to figure out how to make Louisiana’s rice grow abundantly and profitably.
But one thing will be different. He won’t be the LSU AgCenter’s state rice specialist anymore.
Saichuk is retiring from his AgCenter post Jan. 5. He said he isn’t ready to retire completely, and he’s worked as a crop consultant in the past. So look for him to be walking the region’s rice fields and applying the knowledge he’s gained over 40 years about a crop that more than 1,000 Louisiana farmers grow.
It’s a crop that was worth $484 million in 2013, according to AgCenter figures. Value-added enterprises, such as milling, tacked on another $165 million.
Saichuk’s job is to pass along information to the county agents who have direct contact with farmers. But he also is a detective who helps solve the mysteries that sprout occasionally along with Louisiana’s long-grain rice. And he is a soldier who helped rice farmers fight one of their biggest battles against saltwater intrusion into their fields after Hurricane Rita in 2005.
“He was at his best whenever he was in the field and looking at problems and solving those problems,” said Donald Sagrera, a former rice farmer whose family still works about 600 acres south of Abbeville. “He’s a person that, whatever he wanted to do, he’d have been the best at it.”
He’ll be replaced at the AgCenter by Dustin Harrell, who described Saichuk as a mentor.
“Johnny is a good people person and good educator,” Harrell said. “He loves working with people. That was his passion, and he’s very good at it.”
Saichuk, 64, and wife Susette have lived in Lafayette for more than 30 years. He said he acquired his love of agriculture when he was a boy, living on his grandfather’s farm near Lewisburg. After attending high school in Franklin, he studied agronomy at what was then the University of Southwestern Louisiana, graduating in 1972. He went on to Texas A&M for his master’s and to LSU for a doctorate before returning to USL to teach for 12 years.
But agriculture enrollment was falling, he said. So he went to work for the AgCenter — it was the Extension Service then — for a couple of years. Then Saichuk took a job with the G & H Seed Co., based in Crowley. The time he spent in the private sector proved to be valuable, he said.
“One of my pet peeves,” Saichuk said, “is that in academia right now, we have too many people who haven’t done anything except that they went to high school, they went to college, they got their advanced degrees and then they went back to college. And they have no real-world experiences.”
In 1996, Saichuk took his experience back to the AgCenter, this time as the state rice specialist.
The job has changed since then, and Saichuk helped change it. His habit of photographing interesting developments in the field led to the creation of Field Notes, a newsletter that was distributed among the state’s rice producers.
“It got to be a joke among some of the farmers,” Saichuk said. “ ‘I’m going to make Field Notes this week,’ because it was usually a problem or a screw-up.”
Saichuk’s views about the real world vs. the academic world took tangible form with the creation of the research verification program.
“The common lament of farmers to researchers was, ‘Look, you all can do this in the research station, but in the real world it won’t work,’ ” Saichuk said. So he began take the solutions developed by researchers to the farms on a limited basis to see if they can do the job.
One example: In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that pesticide Furadan would soon be banned because it was dangerous to wildlife. It also was the only commonly used protection against the rice water weevil. Saichuk went to the field to test the first alternative technique developed by researchers and found it didn’t work. So it was back to the drawing board.
One of Saichuk’s biggest accomplishments may have been his role in the response to saltwater intrusion after Rita in 2005. At the time, he said, Vermilion Parish accounted for 80,000 of Louisiana’s roughly 400,000 acres planted in rice.
The storm surge of 10 to 15 feet pushed salt water as far north as La. 335. Rice is sensitive to salt, and the remedy in the scientific literature was to remove the salt with gypsum, which wasn’t practical on such a large scale.
“There were a lot of people in Vermilion Parish who could not farm,” Saichuk said. “That was really an economic impact on these small towns like Kaplan and Gueydan and Abbeville.”
Just figuring out where the salt was turned into a controversy. Saichuk remembers attending a multi-agency meeting with 50 or 60 people and seeing that it was going nowhere.
“I’m not the most patient person in the world,” he said. “Finally I said, ‘You all do what you want to do. We’re going to pull some soil samples and find out what we’re up against, if nothing else.’ ”
There were questions about funding and manpower. Saichuk said he made a few calls and got all the help he needed. With GPS equipment and a map dividing Vermilion into grid squares, volunteer teams went out to gather the dirt.
“In two days, we had well over 350 soil samples pulled and brought them back to Baton Rouge,” Saichuk said. “From that, we had a huge amount of knowledge.”
Gary Breitenbeck, a biologist who has since retired from the AgCenter, discovered that an older technique called “making mud” helped remove the salt. Farmers could flood their fields with fresh water and stir the ground beneath. Then, after the water stood on the fields for a couple of weeks, it could be drawn off, taking much of the salt with it.
The fix wasn’t perfect. At its peak, post-Rita rice acreage rebounded only to about 60,000 acres, or three-quarters of the total before the storm. But Saichuk said the technique allowed many farmers to get back in business. The knowledge gathered after Rita has since helped Japanese farmers recover from the effects of a devastating 2011 tsunami.
As Saichuk prepares to leave the AgCenter, rice farmers face wildly fluctuating prices and a new farm bill that eliminates a direct payment program that has put nearly $2 billion into Louisiana’s rice production since 1995. But he sees reason to be optimistic.
“Everybody thinks the long-term outlook is good because there are just so many people in the world to feed,” Saichuk said. “The two crops that provide most of the world’s calories are wheat and rice.”
Largely because of the new farm bill, “we’re getting ready to find out if we can make it or not. … Straight up, we could beat anybody in the world, because of our efficiency.”