"There's negative crawfish," Mclain says. "I'm catching shrimp and crabs in my traps."
Mclain's ponds were overwhelmed on Sept. 24 by the saltwater surge from Hurricane Rita, which carried shrimp and crabs inland with the tide. Detraz estimates 70 percent of the crawfish harvest from Vermilion is in dire straits because of the high level of salinity in the soil and water. And what hurts crawfish also harms rice ' both crops face serious challenges because they are so dependent on fresh water.
Prior to Rita, an extended drought caused crawfish to die in the ground. Then Rita's inundation of saltwater killed the rice stubble crawfish depend on for food. Following the hurricane, drought conditions have continued, leaving ponds to dry with a white salty crust covering the mud. The irrigation ditches typically used to pump water into crawfish ponds are also filled with salt-soaked water. Until heavy winter rains dilute the salt, fields will lie barren of vegetation and crawfish.
"It has to rain to flush it out," says Detraz. "The storm surge came up in here, and it was full of mud and salt, and it settled on top of the stubble and killed everything. There wasn't any oxygen in the water. [The smell] still stinks."
Crawfish sales tide rice farmers over until they harvest their summer crop. From January through March, rice farmers use the cash flow from their crawfish harvest to borrow money to buy seed, chemicals, fertilizer and new equipment, as well as pay off last year's loan. Without crawfish, there is no cash flow for most farmers. "If we can't borrow money, we can't pay our bills, can't plant rice," Detraz says. "If it stays like it is, 50 percent less acreage will be planted in rice [this] year."
Rice in Vermilion Parish in 2004 was a $34.5 million industry. Last summer's yields were even higher, but Rita destroyed the second crop. Rita's legacy has cast doubt on the ability to grow any rice at all this year in lower Vermilion Parish. "Even if we plant and the rice sprouts, we don't know if it will make a head," Tessier says. The LSU Agricultural Center in Crowley is conducting soil samples to see if any rice will survive in the salt-saturated earth. Howard Cormier, rice specialist with the Abbeville LSU Ag Center, says the current conditions may decrease rice acreage by 30 percent or more. "That's a decrease of $10 million to $12 million right there," he notes. "Losses continue to go up and mount as we try to remediate."
Rita's blow backhanded Louisiana's rice farmers who have struggled with rising fuel costs and declining rice prices over the past five years. "Farmers are going out of business, going bankrupt," Detraz says. "We're not getting any response from the federal government. Nobody knows what to do."
"The farmers are not in any way, shape or form overstating the crisis they are facing," says Randy Jemison, director of Louisiana Field Services for the USA Rice Federation. Jemison is closely watching as Mississippi and Louisiana lawmakers attempt to cultivate support on Capitol Hill for a relief bill for farmers. "We do know there will be disaster assistance, but growers don't need loans to add to their debt load, they need a direct payment," he says. "Once you add another loan to the existing carryover, how are they going to get financing for the coming year? The rice industry is suggesting a direct payment. It's the quickest and most efficient way to get dispersal money to eligible growers.
"It's a matter of timing," he continues. "They are making their loans for the spring planting right now. If they have to go chasing paper for the winter months, it's going to throw them behind in getting any assistance. They need assistance right now."
Of the original $62 billion appropriated by Congress immediately after Hurricane Katrina, approximately $15.5 billion still hasn't been distributed. (The money is controlled by FEMA.) While the Defense Bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 19 includes a $29 billion package for hurricane relief, the big outstanding sectors still unfunded are housing, flood insurance and agriculture. Direct assistance needs to "get back into the hands of the people back home," says U.S. Rep. Charles Melancon, who is spearheading the agriculture funding effort for Louisiana.
Melancon has tried another approach to open the coffers of a U.S. Department of Agriculture hurricane disaster program. Following Hurricane Charley in 2004, the USDA made payments to Florida's citrus industry totaling $408 million. While the USDA announced in October that $250 million in funds was available for hurricane-damaged agriculture production areas along the Gulf Coast, no action has taken place to disperse the funds. Melancon wrote White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and urged immediate dispersal of the money.
Meanwhile, crawfishermen and rice farmers in lower Vermilion have no crawfish to sell, no cash flow, and no ability to get loans from local banks for the upcoming season, Detraz complains.
"In 12 weeks, it will be time to plant rice," Tessier says. "Usually I plant 500-600 acres. But there's too much indecision. Money has to come from Washington in January. We were in trouble before the storm. Now, we're on our backs."
"This is not just an agricultural crisis," Jemison adds. "Look at the big picture. Bankers, equipment dealers, the local gas station, every business is going to be affected by the crisis facing the farmers. Our dollars come from agriculture. This thing is going to impact all of south Louisiana economically if there is not some sort of assistance."
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
Women sue over sperm mix-up; Romney on campaign trail; Ebola patient was released from hospital and more national and international news for Thursday, October 02, 2014.
State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, surprised few in the Hub City Wednesday afternoon when he made (semi) official what most of us have known for months: He is running to replace Joey Durel as city-parish president.
Louisiana's first black Republican state senator since Reconstruction — who was a Republican before he was a Democrat before he was a Republican again — is accusing Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of using the black community for votes and providing nothing in return.
LSU's governing board has backed new hospital privatization contracts that give hospital managers greater ease to leave the deal and fewer restrictions about must-have services.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is courting young voters in several appearances across Louisiana this week, talking about her support for legislation that could lower students' college costs.
Stage 4 vet takes on cancer and reminds us all what it really means to get involved.
Is Mary fading as Vitter solidifies his lock on the fourth floor?
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration has renegotiated contracts for six LSU hospital privatization deals, hoping to reach a compromise with federal health officials that will keep Medicaid dollars flowing to the privatized patient services.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is defending her record on gun rights, seeking to rebut sharp criticism from the NRA in a state where the right to bear arms is given special constitutional protection.
Citizens, you have less than a week to register to vote in the Nov. 4 election. Remember, if you don’t vote you can’t complain about the outcome. Well, you can but it’s kind of hypocritical.
After being forced out by its former landlords last year, the community garden has a new location and a 10-year lease.
The party says it has hit a milestone, reaching 10,000 registered voters in the state.
Defensive captain Junior Galette is disgusted by the Saints' sluggish start.
The use of $60 million in Louisiana's public school financing formula to pay for nearly three dozen charter schools violates the state constitution, a statewide teachers' union claimed Monday in a lawsuit.
February trial date indicates parties were unable to negotiate a settlement.
There was a time when United Ballot had a political stranglehold so tight on Lafayette’s black community it was nearly unbreakable, but that grip might be loosening.
The race for Lafayette city marshal may not be the most exciting of this year’s local political contests, but it could prove the most historic.
With the DA’s race too close to call and negative media coverage of Mike Harson on the ebb, will challenger Keith Stutes take the gloves off?
Gov. Bobby Jindal has been viewed as a health care policy wonk, and he's tried to build on that image ahead of a likely 2016 presidential campaign, positioning himself as the candidate with substantive ideas.
Jerry Jones watched what he called the best effort he's seen in 25 years as owner of the Dallas Cowboys in the first half, and that was before Tony Romo had the longest scramble of his career and DeMarco Murray finished off yet another 100-yard game.
Two of the most recognizable women in Republican politics, Sarah Palin and Mary Matalin, have been heavily involved in Louisiana’s current election cycle.
Even though the Louisiana Democratic Party has thrown its support behind former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ congressional bid, national Democrats are not expected to follow suit.
“[Mike] is no longer the energetic ADA that his recent ad is trying to portray. I just think Mike needs to get the hell out.” — Kermit Harson, DA Mike Harson’s brother
The New Orleans Saints have listed Jonathan Goodwin as questionable for Sunday night's game in Dallas, raising the prospect that second-year pro Tim Lelito will start at center for the first time.