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Rice Farmers Honored for Innovation & Conservation Efforts

Story by Beverly Moseley

Rice growers in Southeast Texas are making the final push toward harvesting this year's crop.

Two Jefferson County rice producers recently got a break from the fields, heat and hard work when they were each honored as the Farmer of the Year at the 41st Annual Texas Rice Festival in Winnie.

"I thought a lot of times it was just me and God out in the back 80," said Cecil Slack, who shared the honor with his son-in-law, Shane Waller.

Waller said to have other farmers and industry people chose them was gratifying."

"That was a first for both of us," Waller said. "They treated us like kings."

Growing Texas rice

The Slack Family owns and operates Texas Best Organics in China, Texas. For five generations, Slack family members have farmed rice. Today, rice grown and processed at their company mill in "The China Marsh," and sold under the Texas Best Organics label is certified 100% organic.

In 1989, Slack saw an opportunity and capitalized on it and went into organic rice production.

"We got into organics because the conventional market was overloaded and prices were depressed," he said, adding that the price for organic rough rice was double the conventional market price at the time.

Slack said they planted an estimated 1,800 acres in rice this year. They have upwards of 6,000 acres available to rotate rice production through, as needed. The farmers' project a final production forecast of 4,000 to 5,000 pounds an acre when harvest ends.

"The challenge was to get production up on the organic side. That's been all accomplished through selection of rice varieties," he said.

According to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, rice producers in Texas planted an estimated 189,000 acres of rice this year. In 2009, Texas produced more than 170,000 acres.

Jefferson County is the 6th leading county in rice production in the state and Texas is ranked 6th nationally for rice production. Arkansas leads the U.S., followed by California, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri.

The family has found success whether it's growing, milling or marketing their certified organic rice. Their retail customers and markets span from Texas to California to Canada. In 2009, the company contracted 2 million pounds of organic rice to Europe.

Ashley Waller, Shane's wife and Slack's daughter, has been instrumental in marketing their product. She has worked on building their customer base since the early days of traveling to tradeshows throughout the United States and Europe to put their product in front of customers.

From the ground up

The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has worked alongside Slack and Waller for years on conservation practices such as precision land leveling of their rice fields through the Farm Bill's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)."

We couldn't do it without NRCS. We couldn't do it. It's not just the labor it saves on, it helps us with maximum utilization of the water we buy," Slack said.

Precision land leveling provides a more uniform distribution and control of water across the rice fields, Slack said.

The rice fields' precision straight levees also have helped with input costs, Slack said.

"It saves time, fuel, equipment and labor all in one package," he added.

NRCS engineers worked closely with the farmers on precision leveling their rice fields."

It's very costly. The equipment alone (which they own) to make the design and the engineering itself can run $60,000," said Waller. "A small mistake can be big. Having knowledgeable engineers is very helpful."

New niches

Not one to miss out on a niche supply-and-demand market, Slack realized that precision leveled fields would offer a cost-effective opportunity to get back into raising crawfish fed organic bait."

"Now with laser leveling we can harvest every acre for crawfish," said Slack, who was a pioneer years ago in bringing crawfish farming to the area.

Before precision leveling, he noted that they were only able to put crawfish traps in 65 percent of the fields. He attributes this to the fact that high land areas made water levels inadequate for growing crawfish.

This year is the first time that Slack and Waller have raised crawfish in awhile. Waller said they harvested about 50,000 to 70,000 pounds from their fields. They averaged $1.20 to $2 a pound.

About 70 percent are sold wholesale and 30 percent are sold retail."

We had some real pretty crawfish. For a first year getting back into it, I thought we did real well," Waller said.

Jefferson County, Texas rice farmers Cecil Slack (left) and Shane Waller (right, Slack�s son-in-law) were each honored as the Farmer of the Year at the 41st Annual Texas Rice Festival in Winnie. The Slack Family owns and operates Texas Best Organics in China, Texas.

 Shane Waller (left) and Cecil Slack (right) watch as aerial seeding takes place over their rice fields this spring. One airplane load of seed can cover an estimated 12 acres.

Jefferson County, Texas rice farmers Cecil Slack (left) and Shane Waller (right, Slack�s son-in-law) were each honored as the Farmer of the Year at the 41st Annual Texas Rice Festival in Winnie. The Slack Family owns and operates Texas Best Organics in China, Texas.

Shane Waller (left) and Cecil Slack (right) watch as aerial seeding takes place over their rice fields this spring. One airplane load of seed can cover an estimated 12 acres.

Careful not to spill a seed on the ground, Shane Waller holds a handful of seed from one of the 1,200 pound bags of seed being loaded into the plane for aerial seeding of rice fields. Careful not to spill a seed on the ground, Shane Waller holds a handful of seed from one of the 1,200 pound bags of seed being loaded into the plane for aerial seeding of rice fields.

Careful not to spill a seed on the ground, Shane Waller holds a handful of seed from one of the 1,200 pound bags of seed being loaded into the plane for aerial seeding of rice fields.

Texas Best Organics state-of-the-art mill is 6,000 square feet and is located in China, Texas. The milling process includes steps such as cleaning, dehusking, separating brown rice from paddy rice, polishing paddy rice and a sifting machine to remove broken pieces. There also is a digital rice color sorter. This year is the first time that Cecil Slack and Shane Waller have raised crawfish in awhile. Waller said they harvested about 50,000 to 70,000 pounds from their fields. They averaged $1.20 to $2 a pound.This year is the first time that Cecil Slack and Shane Waller have raised crawfish in awhile. Waller said they harvested about 50,000 to 70,000 pounds from their fields. They averaged $1.20 to $2 a pound.

Texas Best Organics state-of-the-art mill is 6,000 square feet and is located in China, Texas. The milling process includes steps such as cleaning, dehusking, separating brown rice from paddy rice, polishing paddy rice and a sifting machine to remove broken pieces. There also is a digital rice color sorter.

This year is the first time that Cecil Slack and Shane Waller have raised crawfish in awhile. Waller said they harvested about 50,000 to 70,000 pounds from their fields. They averaged $1.20 to $2 a pound.