Flooded fields and fickle temperatures put Louisiana farmers and ranchers in a pensive mood as they gathered here Thursday for the Farm Bureau Federation Convention, the state's largest annual celebration of agriculture.
"I'm afraid this year is a nail-biter and a penny-pincher," said Franklin Parish row crop farmer Adam Faulk, one of as many as 2,000 producers here.
Cold temperatures and wet weather decimated the winter wheat crop and delayed planting for corn and other crops in the northeastern Louisiana Delta and Acadiana.
That was followed by ferocious flooding that began when the Red River left its banks in northwestern Louisiana and created a muddy tsunami that rolled through central Louisiana.
Combine the weather with plummeting commodity prices and the lingering threat of bird flu facing poultry producers and Louisiana farmers and ranchers face their most uncertain year since the hurricanes of 2008.
"It started in North Louisiana and rolled its way down," said Evangeline Parish's Richard Fonentot, who grows rice, soybeans and crawfish. "We could all be in a pickle before this year is over."
"This is one of the scariest years we've face in a long time," said Caddo Parish beef cattle rancher Marty Wooldridge, who saw the Red flood 500 acres of his grazing pasture land and 200 acres of hay meadows.
This uncertain summer follows a six-year period described by Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain as the Golden Age of Louisiana Agriculture, where producers enjoyed bumper crops, high prices or a rare combination of both.
Agriculture's economic impact in Louisiana was $12.7 billion last year, the third straight record.
Strain said 2015 reminds him of 2008, his first year as the state's elected agriculture commissioner.
"We had Tropical Storm Faye and Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008," he said. "Like we did then, we're going to put on a full court press to stand our farmers back up."
Strain said he is working with the state's federal delegation to secure a disaster declaration as well as a supplemental appropriation to assist Louisiana producers.
"The flooding in northwestern and central Louisiana has been very damaging to pasture land and row crops and forced some ranchers to sell their herds because they had no place to put them," Strain said.
"The cold and wet winter and spring is going to affect yields in northeastern Louisiana and Acadiana, and of course we had major losses with the wheat harvest," he said. "And we're doing all we can to protect the poultry crop from the bird flu."
James Wagley, who grows chickens for Pilgrim's Pride in Natchitoches Parish, called the threat of bird flu "our biggest concern by far."
"If one house is infected, every bird in a six-mile circle has to be killed," Wagley said. "We have to do everything we can to ensure biosecurity at our houses."
And Wooldridge, who also produces hay for his herds and to sell to other ranchers, still has a wary eye cast toward the Red, which is predicted to crest above flood stage again Wednesday.
"We can't move our cattle back until we see what happens with the crest," he said.
And the heart of hurricane season is still ahead.
"Don't even mention that," Woodridge said. "Don't even mention it."
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