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Texans Supply Niche Market

Family farmers have grown organic rice for more than 20 years

By Beverly Moseley
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As rice growers in southeast Texas made the final push toward harvesting last year’s crop, two Jefferson County rice producers got a break from the fields, heat and hard work when they were each honored as the Farmer of the Year at the 41st Annual Texas Rice Festival in Winnie.

“I have thought a lot of times that it was just me and God out in the back 80,” says Cecil Slack, who shared the honor with his son-in-law Shane Waller.

Waller said to have other farmers and industry people choose them was gratifying.

“This award was a first for both of us,” Waller says. “They treated us like kings.”

2010 Slack Farm Stats

• 1,750 acres in rice.

• 6,000 acres available to rotate rice production.

• Final production: 5,100 pounds an acre.

Price Drove ‘Organic’ Decision

The Slack family owns and operates Texas Best Organics in China, Texas. For five generations, Slack family members have farmed rice. Today, rice grown and processed at their company mill in “The China Marsh,” and sold under the Texas Best Organics label is certified 100 percent organic.

In 1989, Slack saw an opportunity and capitalized on it and went into organic rice production.

“We got into organics because the conventional market was overloaded, and prices were depress-ed,” he says, adding that the price for organic rough rice was double the conventional market price at the time.

“The challenge was to get production up on the organic side. That’s been all accomplished through selection of rice varieties,” he says. “Last year we mainly grew Jasmine, Rondo and Tesani.”

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, rice producers in Texas planted an estimated 189,000 acres of rice last year. In 2009, Texas produced more than 170,000 acres. Jefferson County is the sixth leading county in rice production in the state, and Texas is ranked sixth nationally for rice production. Arkansas leads the United States, followed by California, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri.

The family has found success whether it’s growing, milling or marketing certified organic rice. Their retail customers and markets span from Texas to California to Canada. In 2009, the company contracted two million pounds of organic rice to Europe. Ashley Waller, Shane’s wife and Cecil’s daughter, has been instrumental in marketing their product. She has worked on building their customer base since the early days by diligently traveling to trade shows throughout the United States and Europe to put their product in front of customers.

From The Ground Up

New Niches

Not one to miss out on a niche supply-and-demand market, Slack realized that precision leveled fields would offer a cost-effective opportunity to get back into raising crawfish in an organic habitat – the fields where the organic rice was grown.

“Now with laser leveling, we can harvest every acre for crawfish.”

Slack was a pioneer years ago in bringing crawfish farming to the area. Before precision leveling, they were only able to put crawfish traps in 65 percent of the fields. He attributes this to high land areas that made water levels inadequate for growing crawfish. Last year was the first time that Slack and Waller have raised crawfish in awhile. Waller said they harvested 50,000 to 70,000 pounds from their fields and averaged $1.20 to $2 a pound. About 70 percent of their crawfish are sold wholesale, and 30 percent are sold retail.

“We had some real pretty crawfish,” Waller says. “For a first year getting back into it, I thought we did real well.”

The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has worked alongside Slack and Waller for years on conservation practices, such as precision land leveling of their rice fields through the Farm Bill’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“We couldn’t do it without NRCS,” Slack says. “We couldn’t do it. It’s not just the labor it saves on, it also helps us with maximum utilization of the water we buy.”

Precision land leveling provides a more uniform distribution and control of water across the rice fields, Slack said. The rice fields’ precision straight levees also have helped with input costs.

“Precision leveling saves time, fuel, equipment and labor all in one package,” he explains.

NRCS engineers worked closely with the Texas farmers on precision leveling their rice fields.

“It’s very costly,” Waller says. “The equipment alone (which the family owns) to make the design and the engineering itself can run $60,000. Even a small mistake can be big. Having knowledgeable engineers is very helpful.”

Beverly Moseley is a Public Affairs Specialist with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bryan, Texas.

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