By JANET McCONNAUGHEY

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- It's turning out to be a good spring for planting rice after all. About 80 percent of south Louisiana's fields are seeded, and farmers in both Louisiana and Mississippi plan more acreage than a year ago.

Producers in both states had worried that the wet fall and winter, including one-month rainfall records for Louisiana in normally dry December, would be followed by a spring too soggy to get machinery into the fields.

"We made a lot of ruts harvesting last fall, and we were afraid that we wouldn't get the land prepared," Gibb Steele said Friday. He said he had planted about 70 percent of his 4,000 acres south of Greenville, Miss., and expected to finish next week.

Farmers usually get fields ready for spring planting once the fall harvest is in. They couldn't do that during the wet winter.

But March was dry -- and by the end of the month, warm enough to get the crop growing in south Louisiana, where planting starts three to four weeks earlier than in Mississippi and north Louisiana.

Early March was cool, so some of the rice planted then was slow to grow. "But in most cases we've got good stands everywhere," said Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station at Crowley. He estimated that 80 percent of south Louisiana's rice had been planted.

Durel Romaine of Abbeville said this is the first time in his 14 years as a rice farmer that he'll be able to complete his planting by the target date of April 15. He said he has planted about 80 percent of his 900 acres, and the rice was an inch or two high on the 220 or so acres planted in the second and third weeks in March.

The slow early growth could bring problems later on, he said. "It's going to be hard to harvest if the whole crop finishes at the same time."

Mississippi and north Louisiana farmers are just starting to plant rice.

Louisiana had 464,000 acres in rice last year, and expects to have 510,000 acres this year -- some of the increase in north Louisiana, and some in south Louisiana fields that storm surge from hurricanes in 2008 had left too salty to work.

The wet fall and winter flushed the salt from fields, reservoirs and canals, adding 20,000 acres -- a 50 percent increase -- just in Vermilion Parish, county agent Stuart Gauthier said.

Mississippi farmers expect to plant about 35,000 acres more than last year's total of 240,000, said state extension rice specialist Nathan Buehring.

He said the main reasons for the increase are continuing "decent" prices for rice and last year's poor soybean harvest, damaged by persistent rains. "There was a lot of seed rot in the beans. That led to an increase in acres for other crops," Buehring said.

Cotton also was hit hard by the fall rains, and many north Louisiana farmers found that their rice had done better than cotton or soybeans, Johnny Saichuk, an LSU AgCenter extension specialist in rice, said earlier this year.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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