⋅ BY LESLEY DIXON ⋅
Hundreds of rice farmers, millers, and other members of the Texas rice community gathered at the El Campo Civic Center on Wednesday for the 2023 Western Rice Belt Production Conference. The day’s program included reports from the Texas rice boards, a Farm Bill update from Dr. Joe Outlaw, presentations from A&M AgriLife Extension Service researchers and scientists, an analysis of organic rice farming practices from Texas AgriLife Organic Specialist Bob Whitney, and a rundown of Climate-Smart grant funds from Dr. Steve Linscombe of USA Rice.
As is almost always the case in Texas, water was the hot topic among conference attendees. After last year’s drought prompted the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to cut off water from the Highland Lakes to much of the rice growing region west of Houston, severely impacting the main and ratoon crops, growers are understandably apprehensive about water supply as they head into this planting season. Randy Epps, director of irrigation operations at LCRA, reported to conference attendees what they can expect in 2023, and the outlook has Texas farmers worried.
“We’re facing some real challenges with the dry year we’re coming out of,” said Debbie Hoffpauir, a Texas rice farmer whose primary source of water comes from the LCRA canal system. “It’s looking pretty bleak, because there’s less than a five percent chance of receiving water for this coming crop year.”
The region’s waterfowl and migratory birds may also be at risk in the event of another dry year in Texas.
“We will probably experience the same situation we had from the 2011 to 2014 drought,” said Dennis Neuman, rice specialist with Ducks Unlimited. “Losing 30,000 acres of rice in the Eagle Lake area will force waterfowl to seek other areas of habitat. More birds will probably only stop for short periods before heading down to the coast. However, since that 2011 drought, a lot of irrigation wells were drilled in the Eagle Lake area, so hopefully those farmers can provide water and habitat that was not available back then.”
While the Western Rice Belt Production Conference is an important gathering for Texas rice producers to discuss issues and tackle challenges, it’s also a good excuse to socialize over a chicken fried steak lunch and congratulate the local students who won the annual Rice Poster Contest.