You could tell something was wrong as soon as the waitress sat the plate down. Instead of being piled high with crawfish, the plate had six or seven tiny crustaceans hiding in the etoufee. The cook had laid on an extra large serving of green beans to try to compensate, but it wasn't the same.

That's just one little episode at a restaurant near Breaux Bridge in the middle of Louisiana's Cajun Country. But it seems to sum up the situation many Louisiana crawfish, rice and sugar cane producers find themselves in these days.

At a time when Louisiana farmers would normally be harvesting boatloads of crawfish and preparing for the beginning of rice planting season, many aren't sure how many crawfish are left to be harvested in 2006 or whether they should risk planting rice in their salt-laden soils this spring.

What's known is that the salt water that Hurricane Rita pushed ashore in a storm surge that ranged from 5 to 20 feet in height, depending where you were on the night of Sept. 24, killed most of the crawfish that would have been ready for harvest in December.

And it left soils with soluble salt levels of more than 8,000 parts per million in rice and sugar cane fields 20 to 30 miles inland in parts of Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson Davis, Vermillion and Iberia parishes in southwest Louisiana.

If there is any kind of a silver lining to the aftermath of the flooding, which persisted for as long as three weeks in some areas, it's that the salt levels tend to vary widely from field to field and parish to parish.

“Fields that were flooded for second crop rice when Rita hit don't have as much salt in the soil,” says John Saichuk, Extension rice specialist with the Louisiana AgCenter. “You might have one field dry and the one next to it flooded, and the dry has a lot more salt in the soil.” (The flip side: rice growers only had about 50,000 acres of ratoon crop because of last summer's low rice and high diesel and fertilizer prices.)

The more than 500 soil samples taken from 177 sites by LSU Extension personnel after the flooding from Rita subsided have shown soluble salt levels ranging from as low as 590 parts per million to 8,270 parts per million.

Veteran southwest Louisiana farmers have seen salt contamination from past hurricanes, but Rita was followed by a severe drought. That means the area has not received the rains that would help float the salt particles to the top of the soil and wash them away.

Southwest Louisiana normally receives about 60 inches of rainfall annually, but only got 40 inches in 2005. “We've only had two 2-inch rains since the hurricane,” says Saichuk. “There's also a lot of salt in the surface water, which might not allow growers to pump irrigation water.”

Louisiana crop specialists have recommended that farmers not plow their salt-contaminated rice fields because of concerns that plowing might move the salt deeper into the soil profile.

Jason Bond and Brooks Blanche, researchers with the LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station in Crowley, La., have conducted greenhouse bioassays to determine the effect of salt contamination on rice seedlings.

So far, their work indicates that seedling emergence and plant dry weight 21 days after rice planting were not affected in soils with soluble salt levels of less than 980 ppm. Seedling emergence was reduced at least 76 percent in soils with greater than 6,430 ppm soluble salts.

“We know that some farmers simply won't be able to plant their fields this spring because of the high salt content, and some should be able to plant where it's lower,” says Saichuk. “It's that huge area in the middle that will be the problem.”

Saichuk, who is also based at the Crowley Station, says southwest Louisiana rice farmers were already hurting because of high fuel and fertilizer and low rice prices before the hurricane hit. “For some guys, Rita may have driven the nail in the coffin.”

Bond says the greenhouse research has offered a glimmer of hope for some producers. “Soil test results have shown that soluble salt levels at the seven sites tested in the greenhouse decreased 40 percent to 60 percent from Oct. 25 to Dec. 12 of last year,” he noted.

“However, more rainfall through the remainder of the winter months will be required for severely impacted fields to be productive in 2006.”

Saichuk said LSU scientists can offer no guarantees as to what will happen after a farmer plants a field with relatively low soluble content. “We're in uncharted waters when it comes to what happens after the crop emerges and begins growing off.”

The situation is also complicated by high levels of salt water in water bodies such as the Mermentau Basin, according to Clarence Berken, a rice farmer from Lake Arthur in Jefferson Davis Parish.

Berken, who said the salt contamination levels in soils he farms with his two brothers are relatively low, is concerned that once farmers start pumping water out of the basin, salt water will be pulled back in and pumped out onto fields.

Berken, past president of the Louisiana Rice Growers Association, helped organize shipments of about 200,000 pounds of rice to Hurricane Katrina victims in Lake Charles, Lafayette and Baton Rouge just two weeks before Hurricane Rita came ashore in the Lake Charles area.

Fellow rice producer David LaCour, who farms with his father, Francis, in Abbeville in Vermillion Parish, says he knows he won't be able to grow rice on at least 400 acres of their 1,500 acres. Some samples registered salt levels of 5,700 parts per million from that soil. The outlook for other enterprises is also bleak.

“We have absolutely zero crawfish to harvest,” says LaCour. “All of my crawfish ponds were inundated with salt water and crab and fish and shrimp.”

Because of the uncertainty brought by low rice prices, high fuel prices and the salt contamination, the Louisiana Rice Growers Association took the unusual step of writing a letter to landowners in the southwest Louisiana area, asking for their understanding last October.

“One of the complicating factors in our situation is that something like 80 percent of the rice in southwest Louisiana is grown on rented land,” said Saichuk. “The letter stressed the need for finding help for our producers.”

Another complication is that Riviana Foods Inc. announced in January that it is putting its rice milling, storage and drying facilities in southwest Louisiana up for sale. The company said it would continue to accept rice through the 2006 harvest season.

For some growers, the combination of negative events may have helped them make a decision. Saichuk says he believes southwest Louisiana's rice acreage will be reduced by 25 percent in 2006. “Some growers have said they're not growing any rice except what they need for crawfish.”

For most of this winter, farmers have had to reach pretty deep to find much enthusiasm for planting another crop, but that may be changing.

“The short-term outlook has been pretty dismal, but the long-term is looking better,” says Saichuk. “Rice prices are up a little, and research has shown that the salt levels are dropping in places. Spring-like weather also helps.”

More than 400 farmers attended the joint annual meeting of the Louisiana Rice Council and Louisiana Rice Growers Association, sitting quietly and listening to presentations about the outlook for rice sales and government legislation.

Washington analyst Jim Weismeyer told the growers he thought it would be possible to pass disaster legislation to help them with the salt contamination problems since it is a (mid-term) election year.

“Our growers are not looking for welfare — they're just looking for a little help to do for themselves,” says Saichuk. ““They just need a little break from the bad luck we've had in the last year or so.”

Rice grower Donald Sagrera remembers not planting a crop after Hurricane Audrey struck southwest Louisiana in 1957. “Back in the 1950s, we could miss a crop and not be hurt too badly. There's no room for error these days.”

“A number of our growers are saying that if we can just make it through this spring, we can survive,” says Saichuk.

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