Rice Farmers Face Challenges in Texas

Rice Acres Again Expected to Idle in Texas Due to Hold on Upstream Urban Lakes

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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L.G. Raun grows rice near El Campo, Texas. Unlike some producers in the region, he uses groundwater for irrigation. Rice farmers who rely on the Lower Colorado River Authority for water will not receive any allocations again this year. Last year, Texas had nearly 71,000 rice acres that ended up under prevented-planting acres because there was no canal water. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

EL CAMPO, Texas, (DTN) -- Rice acreage and production in Texas will take a big hit this spring for the second year in a row after it was officially announced last week there would be no river irrigation water available for those producers.

Most rice production in Texas is concentrated in a handful of counties south of Houston. A big chunk of rice acreage relies on canal water from the Colorado River in Texas -- a different river from the Colorado River that flows to Arizona and California. The Texas farmers rely on dam-release lakes closer to the Austin area.

Last year, Texas rice farmers had nearly 71,000 acres reported under prevented-planting acres and planted just over 145,606 acres of rice. Texas remains the fifth-largest state for rice production behind Arkansas, California, Louisiana and Missouri, but rice acres have continued to dwindle there over time and concentrate into just a handful of counties.

As expected, the Lower Colorado River Authority announced last week there would be no water releases from Lake Buchanan or Travis Lake for farmers in Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties for 2024. That marks the second straight year the river authority has held back nearly all of its lake water used for irrigation.

"This is a reflection of the serious drought we're in," said John Hofmann, LCRA executive vice president of water. "Texas has gotten some significant rain over the last few months, but it hasn't been in the right areas to benefit Lake Buchanan or Lake Travis. The Water Management Plan requires us to take this step to help ensure we can continue to meet the water needs of cities and industries throughout the region."

Timothy Gertzen, who farms in Wharton County, said he will lose about 700 acres this year after idling 1,000 acres last year.

"That's all land that would have been watered from the Lower Colorado River Authority and their canal system here," Gertzen said. "There are plenty of farmers at zero and aren't able to farm anything."

Buchanan and Travis lakes were originally built for flood control and irrigation but now the lakes are surrounded by high-dollar homes and recreation is a major driver there. Homes around Lake Travis can sell for several million dollars.

"We're trying to grow rice where all of the people live," said L.G. Raun, who farms near El Campo, Texas. "So, we're competing with the cities and industry for the water, which wasn't the case 50 years ago."


L.G. and wife Linda rely on groundwater irrigation for their crops so they aren't as impacted, but both have decades of history in advocacy for rice farmers. Linda Raun also served on the LCRA board representing farmers in Wharton County.

"The farmers who can't irrigate, they can take prevented-planting insurance, but the companies that rice farmers rely on, they are the ones that are really hurt," Linda Ruan said.

She noted this is the second stretch in the past several years in which the LCRA has curtailed water releases. "It just happens more often now because of the growth around Austin and the lakes."

Gertzen, who also has a small aerial applicator business, reiterated that point. "The insurance helps keep us in business until the water comes back but the folks that really hurt the most are all of our support industries."

Gertzen noted the risk of small businesses that support rice farmers in the area going out of business, leading to fewer options for farmers in the process. "Less competition means higher prices. It just all goes into a vicious cycle."

That's particularly true for commercial rice dryers and storage companies that operate on volumes of production. Rice Belt Warehouse Inc. was started in 1962 and includes dryers and storage bins in multiple counties for rice and focuses heavily on maintaining identity preservation for producers with the rice that the warehouse stores. Last week, the warehouse was ramping up shipping rice seed to farmers for planting season.

"The earlier we get it in, the better opportunity we have for a second crop," said Heath Bush, CEO of Rice Belt.

One of the challenges for rice farmers is that they rely on laser-leveled flat ground for their rice. Farmers who raise other crops in those flat southeastern counties plant on elevated rows to keep their crops from flooding. It's a hard transition to try converting a field from rice to other crops.

"When you move over to a row crop, it's hard to go back to growing rice," Bush said. "Once you spend the money to put the fields up in rows, it's hard to convert that land back flat."

The lost surface irrigation will affect the Belt Rice facility in Matagorda County where growers can't rely on groundwater irrigation because it is too brackish due to the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. Farmers more inland in Wharton County rely a lot more heavily on groundwater.

"We're very fortunate around here that most of our growers have wells," Bush said. "There's a lot of history with rice production here and we don't want to see that go."


Like other commodities, L.G. Raun said production costs have gone up as much as one-third in recent years. The $14 per cwt reference price for rice is too low as a result.

"It's nowhere near keeping up with the cost of production," he said. "A lot of these input prices haven't come down and they never will."

Arkansas is the top state for rice production, which is likely one reason Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is steadfast in his arguments that reference prices need to be increased in the next farm bill."

"He's really our champion," L.G. Raun said.

Bush also talked about the need to raise reference prices to help U.S. rice farmers compete. He also stressed that trade is critical as well with roughly one-third of Belt Rice's grain going to Mexico. Bush pointed to complaints about highly subsidized rice from India flooding world export markets.

"That's been a complaint with India for a while now and we're trying to figure out how we can export more product," he said.

Video: L.G. Raun talks about rice farming in Texas: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton