Texas rice farm­ers hope for in­creased trade op­por­tu­ni­ties

New deal with China could boost prices sig­nif­i­cantly, they say.

Austin American-Statesman - - COMMUNITY NEWS - By Lydia DePillis Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Ray Stoesser rum­bled around his quiet green fields in a mud-caked SUV, not­ing the slight gra­da­tions of the land, which is sub­tly ter­raced to al­low wa­ter to flow down­hill, ir­ri­gat­ing the fields in slow suc­ces­sion.

“We’re go­ing up­hill, believe it or not,” Stoesser said.

After more than a half-cen­tury of farm­ing, he knows what each field needs and when, har­vest after har­vest.

“Just like tak­ing care of your back­yard,” he said.

Though Stoesser’s land hasn’t changed, the eco­nomic con­di­tions have. Rice prices have de­clined for sev­eral years, av­er­ag­ing about 10 cents a pound last year, be­cause of com­pe­ti­tion from huge rice pro­duc­ers such as Viet­nam and Thai­land, as well as in­creases in agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity that have boosted sup­plies. Over the past few decades, hun­dreds of rice farm­ers in South­east Texas have given up the crop en­tirely.

But in mid-July, the Texas rice in­dus­try — which is worth about $100 mil­lion per year to farm­ers — was granted a re­prieve: a deal to al­low U.S. rice sales to China. The in­dus­try es­ti­mates that China soon could buy 250,000 tons of U.S. rice per year, out of the 9 mil­lion tons it pro­duces, which could boost prices sig­nif­i­cantly.

Al­though trade be­tween the two coun­tries lib­er­al­ized when China en­tered the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2001, trade in rice re­mained off the ta­ble. An agree­ment to al­low ex­ports has been in the mak­ing for nearly a decade, with talks be­gun by Ge­orge W. Bush, con­tin­ued un­der Barack Obama and ul­ti­mately con­cluded un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. The deal sets com­plex safety stan­dards to pre­vent pests from en­ter­ing China with rice im­ported from Amer­ica, which, if met, would open a mar­ket of more than 1 bil­lion rice eaters to U.S. farm­ers.

For the Stoesser farm, sell­ing to China could mean a slightly big­ger fi­nan­cial cush­ion in a busi­ness that can see a year’s in­come dec­i­mated by floods or drought or both.

“If we could get to 16 cents in­stead of 10 cents a pound, it would take a lot of risk out,” Stoesser said. “Trade is the an­swer to our prob­lems.”

The last few decades have left the Stoessers feel­ing iso­lated.

The flat, hu­mid coun­ties east of Hous­ton used to be full of rice fields — in 1968, 70 square miles of Lib­erty County were planted with the crop. Grow­ing up in the area, Ray’s son Neal al­ways saw the rice busi­ness as his fu­ture, and he didn’t fin­ish col­lege.

The Stoessers have owned land since Neal’s great-grand­fa­ther ar­rived from Ger­many in the late 1800s, and Neal has been driv­ing a com­bine since he was old enough to climb up into the cab, as his 8- and 4-year-old sons do now. Over that time, the Stoesser farm has grown to cover sev­eral thou­sand acres as the fam­ily bought out sur­round­ing farms.

The rest of Texas’ rice in­dus­try, how­ever, has shrunk to 187,000 acres from more than 600,000 in the 1950s. In Lib­erty County, the 70 square miles of rice fields have shrunk to 8.

“I hate to say it, but when I was in high school, there were 70 farm­ers,” Neal said. Now there are just three in Lib­erty County — Neal, his fa­ther and his brother, Grant.

Sev­eral fac­tors led to the de­cline, in­clud­ing the en­croach­ment of sub­ur­ban hous­ing de­vel­op­ments, which raised land prices to the point where it made more sense to sell than keep farm­ing. Today, Texas ac­counts for about 6 per­cent of U.S. rice pro­duc­tion, far be­hind the leader, Arkansas, which ac­counts for about half.

But Texas rice farm­ers have a few things work­ing in their fa­vor. New seed va­ri­eties al­lowed them to nearly dou­ble the yield per acre, with the as­sis­tance of ex­perts from Texas A&M’s field of­fices. And fed­eral crop subsidy pro­grams have kept them afloat through thin years, pay­ing out $1.8 bil­lion to them be­tween 1995 and 2014.

Mean­while, the rice in­dus­try has tried to ex­pand its mar­ket by boost­ing Amer­i­cans’ con­sump­tion. Stoesser runs the Texas Rice Coun­cil, which col­lects pay­ments from the state’s rice farm­ers for joint mar­ket­ing ef­forts, such as one that pro­duced a bumper sticker on his Yukon SUV. “Eat Rice,” it reads. “Pota­toes make your butt big.”

In one re­gard, they’ve made progress. Amer­i­cans now eat 26 pounds of rice per year on av­er­age, nearly triple their con­sump­tion in the 1970s. But that in­crease is driven largely by im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties that fa­vor jas­mine and bas­mati va­ri­eties, mostly im­ported from Thai­land, In­dia and Pak­istan, over Amer­i­can medium and long grain rice.

For decades, in the name of na­tional se­cu­rity, China main­tained a goal of pro­duc­ing 95 per­cent of its grain do­mes­ti­cally. Around 2012, rocked by food safety scan­dals, the na­tion backed off that tar­get, al­low­ing it to slip to 85 per­cent. The U.S. went from ex­port­ing about $100 mil­lion in grain and feed in 2007 to a peak of $4.9 bil­lion in 2015.

The Rice Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, of which Stoesser is a mem­ber, wasn’t the only group work­ing for mar­ket ac­cess — the USA Rice Fed­er­a­tion, a coali­tion of farm­ers and millers, was spon­sor­ing ex­changes as well. Rice mills re­move the tough husk from rice grains to make it ed­i­ble.

The millers were par­tic­u­larly keen on the Chi­nese mar­ket, since all the rice go­ing there would be milled in the U.S., in con­trast to the largely un­milled “rough” rice that goes to Mex­ico and South Amer­ica.

Two years ago, USA Rice’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Betsy Ward, said she thought U.S. ne­go­tia­tors had a deal with China. But they could never get it signed by the Chi­nese, which Ward thinks may have had to do with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion hav­ing other trade pri­or­i­ties — such as the mas­sive Trans Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, which point­edly didn’t in­clude China.

After Trump’s agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary, Sonny Per­due, took of­fice, Ward said her group met with him four times about get­ting the rice agree­ment done. Only a few weeks after Per­due vis­ited China to cel­e­brate a deal al­low­ing ex­ports of beef, the rice deal fi­nally was signed.


Com­bines har­vest rice at Ray Stoesser’s farm in late July in Ray­wood. For the Stoesser farm, sell­ing to China could mean a big­ger fi­nan­cial cush­ion in a busi­ness that can see a year’s in­come dec­i­mated by floods or drought or both.

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