Louisiana Farmers: We've Been Getting Hammered

Evangeline parish rice farmer Richard Fontenot has been plagued with relentless flooding this spring.

Evangeline parish rice farmer Richard Fontenot has been plagued with relentless flooding this spring.

By Greg Hilburn, USA TODAY Network

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana farmers may not have faced the 10 Biblical plagues during the last two years, but sometimes it feels like it.

"Basically, we've been getting hammered in the north and the south," said Caddo Parish cattle rancher Marty Wooldrige. "There has been drought, floods and now back to drought in some areas."

"It's been relentless," said Acadiana farmer Richard Fontenot of the flooding in southern Louisiana. "I thought 2016 was rough, but 2017 comes and here we go again." 

And that's from two of the state's most talented and productive producers.

Wooldridge was named one of the top five Best Young Farmers and Ranchers in the United States last year by Progressive Farmer, while Fontenot was named 2016 Rice Farmer of the Year by the USA Rice Federation and Rice Farming Magazine.

Most of Louisiana's top agriculture talent, as many as 2,000 producers and their families, will try to sort it out as they gather here Thursday for the 95th Annual Farm Bureau Convention.

"We'll have some of the top minds and experts here from all over the country," said Farm Bureau President Ronnie Anderson. "It's a big part of what our annual meeting is all about."

Destructive weather hasn't been farmers' only worry.

Add to that low commodity prices — "Cattle are trading as cheap as they were 10 years ago," Wooldridge said — and producers face a crushing combination.

"All of our farmers are on their heels trying to figure how to move forward," said 5th District U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto. "The last two or three years have been devastating."

Abraham, whose family farms in northeastern Louisiana, is the only member of the state's congressional delegation to sit on the House Agriculture Committee.

Louisiana farmers had hoped to cash in on Cuba when President Barack Obama began normalizing relations, but that market remains uncertain following President Donald Trump's decision to halt the normalization for now.

Abraham, Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain and Gov. John Bel Edwards all took contingents of farmers and officials on trips to Cuba last year to lay the groundwork for trade.

"There is some uncertainty with Cuba, but President Trump did say U.S. agriculture would be a priority," Abraham said. "That gives me an opening to make more inroads and continue dialogue with the administration that can make this trade deal happen."

"Hopefully this is a short-term snag in the political process," said Fontenot, who farms rice, crawfish and soybeans.

There are bright spots, especially in global markets outside Cuba.

China and Israel are buying American beef for the first time since 2003, while imports of Brazilian beef have been halted. 

And Iraq is set to buy 100,000 tons of U.S. rice this summer, a deal pushed hard by Abraham.

"If we can open new markets we get better prices," Strain said. "The only way to get commodity prices up is through trade."

Producers also have cheered regulatory rollbacks by Trump, especially the president's decision to rescind an Obama-era water regulation that many in agriculture considered the biggest threat to the industry.

Trump has paved the way to eliminate the Waters of the United States rule, also known as WOTUS.

The 2015 rule, which was never fully implemented because it has been tied up in the courts, expanded the waters over which the EPA had jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act, originally interpreted to protect navigable waterways like rivers and streams from pollution.

Abraham said the new rule under Obama took in everything from "puddles to drainage ditches."

And finally, farmers could produce a bumper crop of corn to offset soft prices, especially in northeastern Louisiana fields.

"It does look good, but we've got to get it to the bins," said Ouachita Parish Farmer Gary Mathes.

Caddo Parish cattleman Marty Wooldridge visits with Congressman Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, and Louisiana Farm Bureau President Ronnie Anderson. 

Caddo Parish cattleman Marty Wooldridge visits with Congressman Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, and Louisiana Farm Bureau President Ronnie Anderson. 

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1

Monica Velasquez

Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, 9516 Airline Highway, Baton Rouge, LA, 70815