Part Three: The Small But Mighty Rice Farm

Mar 25, 2015

This story is part of our series "Shortage in Rich Land" on Missouri's Bootheel region. Click here to see all of the stories.

Chuck Earnest drives along a dirt road next to his rice fields near Steele, Mo. It’s not planting season yet, so the fields are flooded. Flocks of ducks and other waterfowl take turns floating on the rippling water and flying above it.

“This has turned out to be the duck hunting center of Middle America – right in this territory,” he says. “There might be 1,000 ducks out there.”

For such a small region, this sprawling landscape of the Bootheel has some of the most productive farmland in the U.S. A solid water supply and nutrient-rich flatland creates a fertile environment to grow some of the most diverse crops not readily found in the rest of the state. You can find watermelons, sweet potatoes, cotton and a small but strong sector in Missouri growing rice.


Chuck Earnest's rice fields near Steele, Mo., are a waterfowl sanctuary during the non-growing season.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

For Earnest on this windy but clear day, ducks aren’t really what are on his mind.

Like many of his neighboring rice farmers, he’s ready to expand his rice fields. He says free trade agreements across the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean could open up new markets and raise prices. That would be a boon for Missouri’s rice farmers who are directly competing with the top rice producing states Arkansas and California.

“About 40 percent of the American rice crop is exported year after year,” Earnest says. “So we have to have access to far more markets in order to be able to move our crop.” 

"We have to have access to far more markets in order to be able to move our crop." - Farm owner Chuck Earnest

Earnest says the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, could do exactly that. Twelve nations – from New Zealand up to Canada – are trying to hammer out a deal that could open up tariff-free trades across many industries, including automobiles and pharmaceuticals.

But perhaps the trickiest negotiations surround agriculture products. That’s mostly because of Japan, which is protective of its so-called five sacred commodities:  beef and pork, wheat, sugar, dairy and rice. Five seems to be loosely interpreted here.

“In trade negotiations, they have tied those to motivations such as preserving culture and food security or food safety,” Wyatt Thompson, a University of Missouri agriculture economist, says. “And also other things you might not think of like flood control or having pretty countryside.”

So, he says Japan’s farms have a strong influence on food policy – hence the country opposes dropping agriculture tariffs, which would allow more foreign competition. Although more competitors might hurt producers in Japan, Thompson says it could mean cheaper prices and more variety for Japanese consumers.

As for the U.S., eliminating tariffs mean more beef, pork and rice could be sold to Japan.

Chuck Earnest says he and other farmers in the Missouri would benefit greatly from more international trade deals.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

“So for a range of commodities we might increase our exports to Japan, which means higher U.S. prices for these commodities and somewhat greater revenue to farmers and producers,” he says.

But in the U.S., there are other concerns.

Some food safety groups contend the agreement may lead to imports that don’t meet strict American safety standards.  Seafood tops the list of concerning products. But because exact terms of the deal are unknown, experts say it’s hard to speculate.

Those in favor of an agreement, including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, say it’s crucial to strike a TPP deal.

“If we don’t get this done, the void will be filled by China and China will set the stage and set the rules for trade with Asian nations in the future,” Vilsack says. “We don’t want to cede that opportunity to China.”

Vilsack says if the 12 countries can agree on the TPP, he wants the deal to happen quickly. That’s why he and previous agriculture secretaries have asked Congress to grant “Trade Promotion Authority” to President Barack Obama. It would basically allow the president to negotiate the trade deal and fast track it to Congress for approval.

Ultimately, Vilsack says nailing down a TPP agreement would help create momentum for an even bigger trade agreement with the European Union. 

Rice farm owner Chuck Earnest says Bootheel farmers are eager to get a chunk of the estimated $3 billion increase in agriculture exports the deal could bring.

"Is [rice] going to be as big of a market as it was in '63 when it first opens? Maybe. Maybe not." - Farm owner Paul

“That’s a lot of money,” he says. “For Missouri producers to get our share of that would be a significant thing.  It would either draw the rice price up or it would increase rice acres in Missouri.  Either of those are good things.” 

Earnest says he’s excited about a TPP deal, but it’s actually another deal with just a single country that could boost rice sales big time for Bootheel farmers.

“Cuba has been a market we believe we should have been in 20 years ago,” he says. “And it is a constant policy that we have wanted for a long time. Now we finally have a president who is willing to talk about it.”

Neighboring rice farm owner Paul Combs agrees.

“We’re excited about normalized relations with Cuba,” he says. “Until 1963, Cuba was the largest importer of U.S. rice.”

A few miles up the road from Earnest, Combs pulls up in his truck on a clear winter day to check in with some rice that’s being loaded into bins for shipping. He says some of this rice ends up in milling operations stateside for grocery stores or beer.

“The other big outlet for us in the Bootheel is the Mississippi River,” he says. “Most of that rice gets loaded onto barges as unprocessed rice – what they call rough rice – and then gets exported. The primary markets for that export market are Mexico and then all of the countries in Central America."

Rice farm owner Paul Combs says Cuba could be huge for not only the Missouri's Bootheel rice industry, but other sectors as well.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

He says since Cuba sits smack dab in the middle of a busy U.S. trade route, Cuba would be able to score higher quality rice at a cheaper price than what they are currently buying from Vietnam. That would be a big deal for the island with a big import market, according to agriculture economist Bill Messina at the University of Florida.

“They’re a small country but they’re having to import 60 percent of their food requirements to feed the population,” he says.

In 2014, Cuba bought $2.2 billion worth of food products, according to Messina. Rice is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Missouri farmers could sell to the island.  Commodity groups including wheat, pork and rice have jumped on board calling for the end of the U.S. trade embargo. But that takes an act of Congress.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill visited Cuba recently. She says now is the time drop the embargo which would not only help Missouri producers, but help Cuban citizens too.

“The Castro government is using the American embargo as an excuse to the people of Cuba to explain their lack of prosperity. It’s time we rip away that excuse,” she says.

Reversing the embargo is gaining momentum among Democrats and some Republicans. McCaskill says balancing this trade will ultimately strengthen the economy of Missouri and the U.S. That’s exactly what Bootheel farmers and residents like to hear.

Offseason in the rice fields of Missouri's Bootheel region.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

Many locals say the vitality of the region depends on the success of the agriculture industry. Indeed, rice farm owner Paul Combs says rice could actually act as the gateway commodity for the rest of Missouri’s agriculture industry. And then, the small rice industry in the state would open up doors for its sister commodities.

“Is [rice] going to be as big of a market as it was in ‘63 when it first opens? Maybe. Maybe not,” he says. “But as time goes on, if their economy improves because of increased tourism, then you start to sell them the higher priced agricultural products like beef from Missouri or pork from Missouri.”

Shortage in Rich Land: What is the Bootheel? from Kristofor Husted on Vimeo.