Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, at left, answers a question at the Richard and Neal Fontenot Farm in Evangeline Parish. At right is Gov. John Bel Edwards. Strain and Edwards made six stops across the state Nov. 14-17.
Farmers voice concerns about infrastructure, labor
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain wrapped up an agriculture and forestry listening tour at Richard and Neal Fontenot’s R&N Farms in the Evangeline Parish community of Vidrine on Nov. 17.
Farmers expressed their concerns about infrastructure needs, red tape involved with obtaining foreign labor, sales taxes on farm supplies and equipment, high electricity rates and funding for LSU AgCenter research facilities.
At the gathering, Strain said Iraq will be buying a large amount of American rice. The purchase is for 90,000 tons, most of which will come from south Louisiana, said Jackie Loewer, an Acadia Parish rice farmer and chairman of the Louisiana Rice Producers’ Group.
“It’s a big deal for the rice industry,” Loewer said.
Edwards said the state must invest in infrastructure, especially ports, to help farmers sell their crops.
Farmer John Owen, of Rayville, said facilities at the Port of Lake Charles are only able to load bulk rough, or unmilled, rice onto ships. Standards for shipping milled rice are higher to prevent contamination from any other material, he said, adding that a facility for handling bulk milled rice would increase opportunities for producers.
Owen also said farmers would benefit if Louisiana ports stayed open continuously, even in periods of low water.
Edwards said he is aware of the Lake Charles port situation.
“We’re looking at that right now and talking to various people in the rice industry,” he said.
Alan Lawson, a farmer in Crowley, said the current guest labor program is cumbersome and inflexible.
Strain said the program is crucial for Louisiana farmers because they often cannot find local workers. He said Louisiana uses more H2A and H2B workers than any other state per capita.
But dealing with the program’s rules and regulations is a “pain in the neck,” the commissioner said.
Edwards said the labor issue has been a frequent source of complaints.
“This is something we’ve heard about at every stop — about labor,” he said.
Farmer Donald Berken, of Iowa, asked about tax exemptions on farm equipment. The governor said sales tax exemptions for agricultural inputs such as seed, fertilizer, chemicals and farm equipment are a priority.
“We’re going to maintain those exemptions for agriculture,” Edwards said.
Loewer also raised the issue of funding for AgCenter research.
Strain described the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station in Crowley as the pre-eminent rice research facility in the world.
Edwards said the AgCenter cannot draw from tuition funds because it has no students. He said funding has to be secured for the AgCenter “if our research centers are going to be what we want them to be.”
Strain said talks are underway to resume a beef check-off program to fund beef cattle research.
Indian Bayou farmer Christian Richard said the agriculture industry is hit with high electricity bills because of demand charges based on the highest daily electricity usage. He said neighboring states have laws that curb the amount of demand charges.
Richard Fontenot said farmers in Arkansas, unlike those in Louisiana, don’t pay taxes on utilities used in agricultural production.
Edwards said his office will explore legislative options to address that problem. Fontenot said a group of farmers is talking with the state Public Service Commission about demand charges, and AgCenter economist Michael Deliberto is preparing information for the talks.
Strain also told the gathering that $150,000 has been allocated for rice promotion. The funds will come from proceeds of slot machines at racetracks.
Edwards and Strain held the series of listening sessions with farmers across the state starting Nov. 14. After the visit to R&N Farms, Edwards met other agricultural producers for lunch at the Joey Olivier farm near Arnaudville. Earlier tour stops included Mooringsport, Bastrop, Ferriday and Slaughter.