Researchers from the Louisiana State University AgCenter estimate in their report released last Friday that the loss of about 35,500 acres will take an economic toll of $36 million on the largely rural, five-parish region affected by hurricanes Gustav and Ike. That's on top of the initial effects and damage from the September storms.
Parts of the region were still recovering from Hurricane Rita in 2005 - some rice farmers had barely returned to more-normal plantings - when Gustav and Ike hit.
"It seems like we've kind of been forgotten," said Stuart Gauthier, an AgCenter agent in Vermilion Parish. " ... A lot of these farmers have had to leave farming and haven't come back, because it's just too expensive."
The problem wasn't rain, but rather saltwater from storm surge that washed inland and into the fields when the hurricanes hit.
It's not just land that can be idled by saltwater surge; tractors and other equipment can be corroded, with brakes, steering or hydraulics systems ruined.
While rice acreage statewide is forecast to be 480,000, up from last year, normal acreage could be 14 percent to 48 percent lower in hurricane-hit parishes because of saltwater effects, the report found.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates Louisiana will plant the second-highest number of rice acres in the country this year, well behind Arkansas but slightly ahead of California.
Johnny Saichuk, an AgCenter rice specialist, said there were about three months after the storms with no significant rain to flush away the saltiness left in fields by the surge, particularly in Vermilion, Calcasieu and Cameron parishes.
It could be 2010 before salt levels recede to a point that farmers can again plant most of the lost acres, agricultural economist Kurt Guidry said.
But Guidry worries about farmers this year who won't be able to lease extra land or plant more salt-tolerant crops on their rice acreage to offset the loss.
"Many of them are going to have a difficult year financially," with some likely having to get off-farm work or restructure farm debt to carry them through 2009, he said.
Farmer David LaCour hopes crop insurance will help him.
Salt levels are so high on his rice farm near Abbeville, La., about 10 miles from the coast, that he's only been able to plant 125 of his 850 acres. And he said he's been checking "constantly" to see if that number will budge.
"It's hard to stand around and not be able to plant, because I'm ready to go," he said. "I've got everything just sitting on the sideline here, and I can't go forward."