2021 is presenting its own challenges to the rice industry

Betsy Ward

By Betsy Ward
President and CEO
USA Rice

Last year had unpredictable ups and downs. Unprecedented hurricane and fire seasons wracked both the South and Northern California, international shipping logistics have been disrupted and some of our largest foreign markets are still reeling from the impact of COVID-19.

The pandemic isn’t over quite yet, and of course the weather doesn’t follow anyone’s orders. But with the arrival of the new year, I think a lot of us — myself included — were hoping things might calm down a bit and even go back to “normal.”

As an industry, we’ve faced every challenge that the last year has thrown at us with sound strategy and the resilience we’re known for. Rather than focus solely on the challenges themselves, I’d like to take some time to reflect on the ways we’ve responded to them.

‘Hurricane of the Month Club’

Take the weather. Though none of us voluntarily signed up for the “Hurricane of the Month Club,” the South was hammered last fall by Hurricane Laura followed by Hurricane Delta just six weeks later. The storms hit the ratoon crop hard, caused flooding and power outages, and damaged structures on farms and mills.

While 2020 now holds the record for most named hurricanes in a single year, it was also the largest wildfire season in California’s modern history, scorching almost 4.4 million acres and causing precautionary electrical brownouts across the state’s rice country.

And in February, the entire southern United States was paralyzed by winter storms and record-breaking freezing temperatures, shutting down water, power and roads for days.

These catastrophic weather events and the global pandemic were the backdrop against which we saw retail rice sales at among the highest levels we’ve seen as more Americans started cooking at home and stocking — or overstocking — their pantries. The industry responded by fixing damaged property and moving right into the spring planting season.

It is taking the lessons learned from this historic freeze and implementing measures to prepare for icy roads, power outages and burst pipes in the future.

Shipping container and labor shortages

This is fortunate, because the whims of the weather aren’t the only challenge facing U.S. rice. While there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, the pandemic isn’t over, and it exposed weak links in logistics — particularly with international trade.

destroyed binis

Farmers repair a set of grain bins damaged by Hurricane Laura south of Lake Charles, Louisiana, in late August 2020. The tops of three of the bins were blown away, exposing freshly harvested rice — photo by Bruce Schultz, LSU AgCenter

Shipping container and labor shortages are disrupting shipping for all kinds of commodities. As an industry, we are tackling the issue head on by engaging with the federal government through as many avenues as possible. We’re communicating with the Biden administration and Capitol Hill, meeting with the Federal Maritime Commission, working with legislators, and partnering with other industries to solve these logistical issues and keep our rice getting to the places it needs to be.

We’re also fighting to regain our hold in Iraq, a country whose economy was hit especially hard by the pandemic and dropping oil prices. In 2020, Iraq purchased no rice from the United States, a stark departure from 2019 when it purchased more than 150,000 metric tons and were our sixth largest export market.

But at the beginning of this year, Iraq announced a global tender, and USA Rice has been working tirelessly with government officials and legislators to secure an Iraqi tender specifically for U.S. rice.

In March, 25 members of Congress, many of them from rice-growing areas, sent letters to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and both U.S. and Iraqi ambassadors urging them to work together on this issue.

There isn’t a problem facing U.S. rice today that we as an industry can’t find a solution for. You name it, and we’re on it.

Whether it’s a natural disaster or a shift in the international economy, we come together, sit down and plan our response.