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Texas rice growers express relief after USDA ruling

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When Category 4 Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast last month with winds exceeding 135 mph and heavy rains that dropped as much as 54 inches in the Southeast region of the state, farmers and ranchers immediately found themselves facing extreme challenges related to the historic weather event, including Texas rice farmers.

Michael Orrin Way, an entomologist with Texas A&M AgriLife Research Service in Beaumont, estimates that about 20 percent of the state’s primary rice crop and at least 50 percent of the ratoon, or second rice crop, was destroyed by the storm. While the losses represent a major setback for many rice growers, certified organic rice producers who survived the storm were hopeful most of their $13.7 million industry would survive this year.

Texas produced the second largest organic rice crop in the nation in 2016 on just over 19,000 acres of the total 160,000 acres of rice grown in Texas, providing the second most organic rice of all states, only behind California. But not long after the Harvey dumped massive amounts of rainfall across rice country in Texas, including organic rice farms, state health officials became concerned with the large areas of standing water that remained, ordering chemical spraying across large areas that quickly became a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

CERTIFICATION AT RISK

Rice officials say the amount of red tape required to become a certified organic rice operation makes it a complicated procedure, and rules governing the application of chemical treatments, for example, are strict and unforgiving. When local, state and federal agencies initiated an intensive aerial spraying program to combat a serious and rapidly developing mosquito outbreak, organic rice fields were immediately at risk of losing their certification.

Health officials pointed out a quick response was warranted after Harvey’s historic rains drenched coastal areas with an estimated 34 trillion gallons of water, enough to fill Lake Texoma nearly 40 times over. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency management Administration (FEMA) teamed up and petitioned for support from U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft to spray pesticides over hundreds of thousands of acres in an effort to reduce the risks of such diseases as encephalitis, West Nile Virus and Zika virus.

After surviving the historic hurricane and floods, organic rice growers began to worry about whether they would lose their organic certification as a result of those pesticide applications, a development that would be devastating to growers who were lucky enough to escape the fury of the storm. Organic certification means growers can get about twice as much money for their crop than traditional high yield rice varieties. A loss of certification status would have been disastrous to their specialty crop.

VARIANCE REQUESTED

Rice farmers became concerned about the issue after the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Organic Certification Program informed them that USDA might not allow farmers to designate their surviving crop as organic as a result of the aerial spraying program. Producers immediately petitioned the Program to request a variance from USDA, similar to a variance granted California meat producers in 2014 during the extreme drought that rocked the state’s agricultural industry that year.

As it turned out, however, USDA ruled that its organic regulations included a section that allows for state and federal emergency pest treatments, and the emergency mosquito controlled authorized by FEMA qualified as an example of a qualifying circumstance, meaning organic growers lucky enough to still produce a crop or a portion of their organic crop could still market it as organic certified.

“So basically that organic is still certified organic,” reported Way, much to the relief of producers.

Just as growers were breathing easy, however, another potential problem arose. FEMA warned that if farmers had diesel tanks on their farms that were breached by flood waters, that could also bring into question whether their crops would still be certified as organic.

As it turned out, Way says a state chemist called in to test flooded fields revealed such contamination had not occurred, providing additional assurance to growers that their rice crops could still meet requirements of organic certification.

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