A perfect storm of bad luck this year that has resulted in Louisiana's rice farmers producing one of the lowest crop yields in memory.

Murphy's Law states, "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong," and Louisiana's rice farmers watched Murphy run roughshod through their fields since late last year. They are now feeling that pain as the year's harvesting period comes to a close.

Frequent rains earlier this year caused farmers to be late clearing and planting their fields. Then, after planting, the rains returned and washed away newly laid fertilizer. Yet the biggest punch in the stomach was Hurricane Barry in July.

Hurricane Barry hit when the rice began to flower and pollinate, which is a critical period in rice's development. The hurricane's heavy wind and rain didn't do too much damage to the rice, but it interrupted pollination causing a large amount of the rice grains to blank or be empty when cracked open.

In 2018, the average rice yield was 31.45 million hundred weight, or 3.145 billion pounds of rice harvested. Dustin Harrell, director of rice research at LSU AgCenter, predicted a 30% lower yield, which would mean this year's yield could end up almost 1 billion pounds less rice harvested than last year.

"This is probably one of the most difficult seasons growers have faced in several years," Harrell said. "Last year, we had a fairly good year. The four years prior were low yield years, but this year, we're looking at 20-30% lower than average yields, which has led to some of our lowest yields in as long as I can remember. This will definitely have an economic effect on the farms and other farm-related businesses in Acadiana and across the state."

Acadia and Jeff Davis parishes are by far the top two parishes for rice production in the state, each with more than 80,000 acres of rice farms, according to LSU AgCenter data. Acadia Parish farmer Jackie Loewer works about 1,500 acres in Branch with his brother and two nephews and said this year may be the worst season in memory.

"There's a critical time where the rice pollinates itself, and if you get too much rain and wind, it can cause blanks when the seed forms and it's empty," Loewer said. "Barry hit right when the rice was pollinating, and I think that's probably one of the major factors in why the yield is so bad this year."

Beth James, of Prairie Ronde Rice in St. Landry Parish, agreed: "The worst season I've ever seen." 

Relief may be on the way from the federal government. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated farmers in Vermilion Parish who suffered losses related to the hurricane as eligible to apply for emergency loans. Others in Acadia, Cameron, Iberia, Jeff Davis and Lafayette parishes can also apply, USDA officials announced. 

Loewer added that one problem has been crop destruction from feral hogs. He said his fields had 5 acres lost to hogs coming out of the woods at night and wallowing in the fields, killing the rice crop wherever they go. He heard similar stories from other farmers with property bordering forested areas.

Rice farmers also had to contend with diseases that set in, such as bacterial panicle plight, false smut and black kernel smut. Farmers will have a remedy should these strains of diseases hit next year, Harrell noted, but they had nothing to defend their crops this year. 

The mills also are seeing this drop in the yield as they start buying product from farmers. Robert Trahan, director of sales and business development at Falcon Rice Mill in Crowley, which produces Cajun Country Rice, said it's been a challenging year.

"Mother Nature can definitely throw you curve balls," he said. "Rice can take a lot of rain and a lot of sun and heat but not at the wrong times. We knew things were going to be down, but when the hurricane came, we thought things would be fine because the winds didn't knock down as much as we thought. But now some guys are making some of the lowest yields they've ever made," Trahan said.

Another challenge is lower rice prices and the current trade war with China. U.S. rice producers had just gained the approval to start negotiating to export to China when tariffs kicked off, which has been a contributing factor in finding customers.

Farmers are now being forced to sell low and move on to this year's soybean crop for cash flow and space purposes. The trade war, however, could affect that because China is one of the world's biggest buyers of soy.

According to Loewer and Trahan, farmers are tightening up in order to survive and waiting for higher prices to make up for the lower yields. 

"This is an example that every crop year is different," Trahan said. "You're never sure what's going to happen. You don't know if everything's going to go right or wrong when you're farming or milling. That's the kind of stuff that keeps you up at night, and you just have to push through to the next year. These years put a strain on the pocketbook of people, but next year's always a new year."

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Email Dan Boudreaux at dboudreaux@theadvocate.com.