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Louisiana Flooding Swamps Agriculture

Tegan Wendland
Sixth-generation rice farmer Christian Richard says he lost about a quarter of his crop during the summer floods near Lafayette.

As people in cities and towns across Louisiana continue the ongoing cleanup of flood-damaged buildings and homes, farmers face another set of problems. Many corn, soybean, sugar and rice farmers in the southern part of the state had their fields flooded with several feet of water. Now they are trying to figure out what comes next.

In the flatlands of south-central Louisiana, just past Lafayette, big trucks drive fast down the country roads. Debris is piled high outside of farmhouses, hit hard by recent floods.

It’s where Christian Richard was born and raised. He even flaunts it on the plates of his big white truck. “A couple of us joke about it - it’s called a ‘ricense plate’…It just says ‘rice’ and it’s got a couple of grains on it. It’s part of who we are down here and what we do.”

He and his family have grown rice for six generations. He also plants soybeans and raises crawfish. He stands in what was a beautiful field of rice - tall, golden heads blew in the breeze just a few weeks ago.

Rice grows in water, but just a few inches, not several feet. The floods destroyed his crops and when the sun came out, the stalks and their sprouted grains all dried up. “That’s why you are getting this dry, crackly sound - it’s an eerie sound in a rice field. Not something you’re used to experiencing,” says Richard.

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Christian Richard farms rice, crawfish and soybeans near Kaplalan, La. Here he holds a handful of flood-damaged rice.

He lost almost a quarter of his crop. This field took two feet of water and he couldn’t even get his truck back into it. He says, “It’s really disheartening when you get here 14 days after you think you’re going to show up and then it’s all just flat on the ground, laying in the water re-sprouted and you have nothing to harvest.”

The rain couldn’t have hit at a worse time. Seasons come early in Louisiana, and farmers were just starting to harvest their rice and soybeans. Thousands of farmers lost crops.

Richard is one of the lucky ones, he had crop insurance. Many don’t, and that’s the only way they’ll get help to replant and recoup their losses.

State agriculture commissioner Mike Strain doesn’t think it’s enough. “Not at this time, that’s why we’re going back to Washington,” says Strain. He wants the U.S. agriculture secretary to make a disaster declaration for the rural farming parishes that got flooded. That would unlock some federal money and programs.

One problem is, the state doesn’t know exactly how much was lost. Right now it’s $110 million and rising.

Kurt Guidry calculated that number. He’s an economist with Louisiana State University’s AgCenter. “We can go and estimate and determine with pretty good accuracy how many houses were flooded because once the damage is done it’s done...”

But he says with agriculture, rain after the flood can cause almost as many problems as the flood itself. It’s not the first time Guidry has been tasked with this job. This is the third major flood in Louisiana this year.

In a state with declining oil and gas revenue, agriculture is becoming more important to the economy. Revenue has doubled over the past decade as more farmers get into soybeans and corn.

Strain worries that policy will have to catch up, if current weather patterns continue. “How do you prepare for 24 inches of rain in 24 hours? How do you do that? How can we minimize future flooding based on what we believe is a weather pattern that could continue for awhile. We know we’re in a time of more intense weather patterns,” says Strain.

Though Richard’s losses will be above $100 thousand, he can rely on his other crops to bring in some money. And if it floods again? “Oh lord…I don’t know,” says Richard. “This is an event I hope to God we never experience again in my lifetime.”

He will replant next year and he’ll take his toddler son out there on the tractor with him, hoping he chooses to follow in the family business. 

This story aired nationally on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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