News Release Distributed 01/10/06
KAPLAN – Rice farmers whose fields have high salt levels from Hurricane Rita’s storm surge should avoid plowing their fields, according to experts with the LSU AgCenter.
That was advice presented by J. Cheston Stevens, an LSU AgCenter scientist, at a meeting for Vermilion Parish rice producers Friday (Jan. 6).
Stevens said tilling salt-contaminated soil would interfere with the cleansing effect brought by rainfall. On the other hand, water leveling fields could put the salt into a solution that would help get rid of it, he said.
Stevens also said bermudagrass, along with several weeds, are thriving in the salty soil left by the hurricane’s storm surge.
LSU AgCenter rice specialist Dr. Johnny Saichuk said putting highly contaminated rice fields into pasture would be a more suitable alternative than attempting to grow a rotational crop.
Vermilion Parish farmer David LaCour said he won’t be able to grow rice on at least 400 acres of the 1,500 acres he farms with his father, Francis LaCour. Some samples turned up salt levels of 5,700 parts per million on that land, he said.
"Any rainfall would be helpful, but we’re not getting it," LaCour said.
Dr. Jason Bond, an LSU AgCenter agronomist at its Rice Research Station, said salt levels have dropped by as much as 60 percent in some instances. He said salt-laden soil has been used in greenhouse studies to grow rice. In the moderate and severely contaminated soil, rice emerged and later died, he reported.
In addition, Dr. Steve Linscombe, an LSU AgCenter rice breeder who also serves as regional director for southwestern Louisiana, said none of the available rice varieties are salt-tolerant.
Bond said in the first round of greenhouse tests rice appeared to do well in soil with 1,500 ppm of salt. But the results weren’t as favorable in the most recent test that used a small number of plants.
He said the challenge now is to find what level should be safe for growing rice under most conditions regardless of soil type.
The LSU AgCenter, with help from agricultural companies, collected more than 500 soil samples from 177 sites in areas affected by Rita’s storm surge – from Vermilion, Jefferson Davis, Cameron and Calcasieu parishes. Testing of the samples has shown salt levels as high as 20,000 ppm.
Bond said more sampling will be done after the next heavy rainfall.
After a year passes, assuming normal rainfall resumes, many fields should be capable of producing a crop, according to Dr. Gary Breitenbeck, an LSU AgCenter biochemist.
Rita did bring one beneficial effect, however, according to Dr. Eric Webster, an LSU AgCenter weed scientist, who said the saltwater from Rita’s storm surge apparently killed Peruvian water grass, an invasive plant found the past couple of years in lower Vermilion Parish. It had clogged one canal with a mass of growth from bank to bank.
"It was amazing how clear this ditch had become," Webster said.