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Louisiana Flooding Swamps Agriculture

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As Louisiana continues the clean-up of flood-damaged buildings and homes, farmers face another set of problems. Many corn, soybean, sugar and rice fields were flooded with several feet of water. As Tegan Wendland at member station WWNO reports, farmers are trying to figure out what comes next.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: 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.

CHRISTIAN RICHARD: A couple of us joke about it - it's called a ricense (ph) plate (laughter).

WENDLAND: It just says rice.

RICHARD: It just says rice on it, got a couple of grains on it. And it's part of who we are down here, and it's what we do.

WENDLAND: 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 stocks and their sprouted grains all dried up.

RICHARD: That's why you're getting this dry, crackly - it's an eerie sound in a rice field. You know, it's not something that you're used to experiencing.

WENDLAND: He lost almost a quarter of his crop. This field took 2 feet of water, and he couldn't even get his truck back into it.

RICHARD: It's really disheartening when you get here 14 days after you're - 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.

WENDLAND: 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 them lost crops. Richard is one of the lucky ones. He had crop insurance. Many don't. And right now, 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.

MIKE STRAIN: No, not at this time. That's why we're going back to Washington.

WENDLAND: Strain 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. But 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.

KURT GUIDRY: We can go and we can estimate and we can determine with pretty good accuracy how many houses were flooded because once the damage is done, it's done, right?

WENDLAND: 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. And in a state with declining oil and gas revenue, agriculture is more important to the economy. Revenue has doubled over the past decade as more farmers get into soybeans and corn. But Strain worries that policy will have to catch up if current weather patterns continue.

STRAIN: 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 a weather pattern that could continue for a while? We know we're in a time of more intense weather patterns.

WENDLAND: Though Richard's losses will be above $100,000, he can rely on his other crops to bring in some money. And if it floods again...

RICHARD: Oh, Lord (laughter), I don't know. This is an event that I hope to God we never experience again in our lifetime.

WENDLAND: 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. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in Lafayette, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.