Tom Kelley: A Texas legacy

Navigating rice crops and water restrictions.

⋅ BY CASSIDY NEMEC ⋅ 
Associate Editor

Tom Kelley, a born-and-raised Texan and rice farmer, is familiar with many water issues affecting the Texas rice industry.

As a former Texas A&M Yell Leader and current farmer in Eagle Lake, Texas, Tom Kelley never doubted for a second he’d end up back in farming. 

Stemming from a long line — four generations before him to be exact — of farmers and ranchers, Kelley attended Texas A&M University and went to work as a scuba instructor on an island for five years before returning to Texas to continue in the industry.

“I grew up in Conroe, Texas, but we always came here [Eagle Lake] as kids. My dad is from Conroe, and my mom from Eagle Lake. My mom’s family consisted of the farmers in the area I’d come back to work for in the fields starting when I was eight or nine years old,” Kelley said. He started out shoveling at a young age before moving on to drive the auger cart, combines and tractors. 

Kelley came back to Texas and began working with BioFac Crop Care out of Mathis, Texas, selling beneficial insects.

“I enjoyed the scouting more than I did the selling and ended up scouting on my own for 21 years. I also started selling crop insurance in 1997 and farming rice in 2003. Doing all three of those at once didn’t work, so I cut the scouting out a few years ago,” he said.

Both his brothers, Tim and Trent, worked with him for a while but are out of it now. Tim runs the cattle operation while Tom focuses on the rice, and Trent now works in the oil and gas industry and still comes to help when needed.

The current operation

Tom said they typically plant their roughly 140-day, air-drilled rice crop around April 1 every year on their crop share system. This way, they are hopefully getting their rice out of the field in mid-August ahead of peak hurricane season in mid-September. “We try to get everything in and out and done well before then so that by the time we start getting into hurricane season, we don’t have to worry about it.”

He said once they cut their rice at that 16% to 18% moisture range, it goes straight to the rice dryer in town. Their dryer takes the rice out of the receiving bin and puts it in front of a natural gas flame to dry in stages until it reaches about 11% moisture for fumigation and storage. Kelley broke down the costs of this process, along with the costs factored into their selling process.

“It costs you about a dollar and 25 cents a hundredweight to dry your rice,” he said. “It costs you another 10 to 15 cents a hundredweight for the brokering and marketing, and then it costs you nine cents a month per hundredweight for storage. We estimate two dollars a hundredweight, as a round number, for drying, marketing and storage.”

Kelley discussed the rice quality problems they have had in the United States the past few years. He said package rice makes about 50 barrels, or roughly 8,000 pounds, to the acre on a first crop and is great quality. He said that hybrid rice, on the other hand, is not as good quality but can make as much as 70 barrels, or roughly 10,000 pounds, per acre on a first crop.

“On a year like 2022 when we could get as much as 20 dollars per hundredweight, that extra 2,000 pounds adds up to another 400 dollars per acre or more.”

He added that he once grew seed rice for eight or nine years and really enjoyed it.

As far as his current varieties go, Kelley planted RiceTec XL 723, 745 and 753 in 2022 and is set to plant RiceTec XL 723 and XL 7321 for the 2023 season.

Kelley mentioned that conventional rice is forgiving when it comes to weeds, diseases and insects. 

The floods keep their regular weed issues down, but they do have issues with grass. 

“Our big problem is grass, and these grasses have adapted to where standing water doesn’t kill it, and the chemicals we have don’t kill some of them. When they do kill them, we have to get them in there early to kill them when they’re little,” Kelley said.

For any diseases, Kelley typically manages with a fungicide every year. He noted that the fungicide has become expensive but that it works. Overall, he knows surrounding areas have much higher disease pressure (blast, etc.) as compared to his minimal issues.

Stinkbugs are their main insect culprits. 

“They’re pretty easy to kill. We use a product called Tenchu. It has good residual to where you can spray every other swath, and it will spread and carry over,” Kelley said.

Water is key

Water played a dominant role in the 2022 rice season and is looking to play even more of one in 2023.

In 2022, everyone in the Eagle Lake area planted their rice around the same time, so obtaining the water needed became difficult.

The 2022 season had some water curtailment for their second crop, and the 2023 season is shaping up to have total cutoff for some areas.

“It was wet for a period of time, then all of a sudden dry. This led to everyone planting later in the season and trying to get water at the same time.”

Kelley noted they’ve made adjustments in their fields for the water.

“We went in and took out the contour levees, put the highs into the lows and put it on a 2/10” slope. Part of that is permanent levees and the other is aluminum water boxes.”

He said USDA does help with the land leveling. Depending on the situation, they’ll pay for 40% or 50% sometimes and do it all in the name of water conservation.

“When I was younger, there were levees everywhere. Anytime we knew it was going to rain, we wouldn’t sleep because we’d be so worried it was going to be washed out. Now, we don’t have to worry about it,” he said, even noting Hurricane Harvey did not affect the areas he was able to implement those systems in.

He pointed out a field that he said was very labor intensive and extremely inefficient from a water standpoint. That field went from having 40 levees to having five permanent levees on each side.

Kelley has visited with someone about alternate wetting and drying practices, but it is not feasible for them right now.

“With us, we have to be able to turn the water on and off. If water is in short supply and we let it go dry, knowing that we need water next Tuesday, and we get told Tuesday we can’t get water until Friday or Saturday, that’s a problem.”

Looking to the past to look ahead

Kelley commented on the traditional aspects of farming in America and how that affects the way things are done now.

“Farming in America, versus farming somewhere like Australia for example, we have the burden of tradition. They didn’t start really farming in Australia until the ‘60s, while we’ve been farming in this country since the 1600s and 1700s. I was able to have outside influences to show me things didn’t have to be done the same way they’ve always been done. I had the tradition, but I could kind of modify it.”

He continued by saying, even with him liking the way things are for the most part, how much and how quickly technology has changed and impacted how they farm. “Just the difference in chemicals, varieties and technology alone — you can’t not modify and still survive. In agriculture, if you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind.”

Kelley admitted that embracing new technology is expensive. He said once it is done, however, most are normally glad to have it and the ease and efficiency some of the new technologies can provide.

His 2022 first crop started off messy with rain and rutting up the fields before their second crop, but yields were good at 55 bbls., or just under 9,000 pounds, per acre.

Kelley mentioned some of their cattle land nearby is likely going to be lost, so there may be possibility for more rice on the horizon.

Troubled waters

The Lower Colorado River Authority controls the Lower Colorado River that comes out of Austin. Kelley said they do a lot of conjunctive use with LCRA to try and save on costs.

“We’ve been trying to go all LCRA for the first crop and water wells for the second,” he said. “They weren’t able to get us the water in time this last year, so we couldn’t do that.”

The nearby combined storage lakes of Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan have an overall water-holding capacity of just over two-million-acre feet.

Kelley discussed how they are on interruptible water with LCRA in that area, so they can be cut off and are low on the totem pole when it comes to availability — even while paying about $70 an acre foot for their water. Firm customers, however, pay more than farmers — about $160 per acre foot of water — so they don’t get cut off unless it gets to a terrible point. While there are some nuances when it comes to senior and junior water rights, those firm customers get priority for paying for that guarantee, and farmers would get cut off long before they would.

The trigger for farmers to get cut off in this area is determined by their two reads on March 1 and July 1. If the combined storage levels are less than 1.5-million-acre feet, curtailment will go into effect. If the combined storage levels are less than 1.3-million-acre feet, total cutoff will happen for those on interruptible water.

The 2022 season had some curtailment for their second crop, and the 2023 season is shaping up to have total cutoff for some areas.

“The lakes are so low that they will not be releasing any water for downstream rice this year. So, there will be about 50,000 acres in the three counties in this area that will not be farmed this year,” Kelley said.

He said he will still have about 350 acres of rice this season thanks to two out of his three water wells being electric. “The power source is cheap, so the water’s cheap, so we will grow.”

His other diesel-powered well will probably not be in use just due to the sky-high cost of diesel still in place. He said this will have a downstream effect of hurting the fertilizer, seed and diesel communities, but the lack of water creates an “act of nature” from the ongoing drought that most in the area will use for their insurance claims this season.

2023 will certainly prove to be a unique one for Texas rice.

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