Rice crop may be best in three years

by Laura Lloyd
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KANSAS CITY — While the U.S. corn crop withers under hot, dry drought conditions, the U.S. 2012 rice crop is faring far better.

The U.S. long-grain rice crop is currently “not outstanding, but good,” said Milo Hamilton, president of FirstGrain.com. He based his optimism on two factors: cool-enough nighttime temperatures in rice-growing regions and less flooding and drought than in the past two years.

“It looks like we may have dodged a bullet,” Mr. Hamilton said. Pointing out that it is difficult to assess the health of the rice crop from simply watching it grow, he predicted the long-grain harvest “won’t be a record but will be the best in three years, knock on wood.” In 2007, the long-grain rice harvest produced an all-time high yield of 6,979 cwts per acre.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in its June 2012 Acreage report said area planted to long grain rice was up 8% compared with the previous year, with acreage in both Arkansas and Missouri higher because severe flooding in the spring of 2011 limited planting last year.

Overall U.S. rice plantings, including medium grain rice cultivated in California, were estimated by the U.S.D.A. at 2,660,000 acres in 2012, down 1% from 2011 and the lowest total number of acres since 1987. In Texas, one of the six main rice-growing states, a record low of 114,000 acres were planted to rice, partly as a result of water restrictions put in place because of ongoing drought, the U.S.D.A. said.

Mr. Hamilton noted that crop experts “can be fooled” by looking at rice in the fields. He said the integrity of each grain is key in evaluating the quality of the crop. Rice cannot be extruded, like corn and soybeans, and is eaten with minimal processing.

Kernels thought to be whole are sometimes discovered at harvest to be “broken up and pulverized,” a common scenario in 2010, Mr. Hamilton said. Damaged whole grains can be made into rice flour or pet food but are sold for less than intact rice.

The outlook for a good harvest does not necessarily mean a windfall for rice farmers. Unlike the soaring prices of corn, wheat and soybeans this summer, rice prices have only appreciated 2% on the year.

Oryza.com, a rice-focused web site, recently opined “If rice prices don’t keep pace and fight for acreage, industry experts are forecasting for double digit declines in rice acreage next year.”

According to the U.S.D.A.’s most recent Crop Progress Report, the 2012 rice crop headed ahead of schedule, which Mr. Hamilton said was favorable for the crop because it would mean less vulnerability in August when night-time temperatures would be expected to rise to the danger zone of 80 degrees.

The U.S.D.A. said 39% of the rice crop in the six major growing states was headed as of July 15, up from 26% headed as of July 8 and well above 21% headed as the 2007-11 average for the date.

As of July 15, a total of 70% of the rice crop in the six states was rated in good-to-excellent condition by the U.S.D.A., compared with 60% at the same time last year.

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