Ray Stoesser rumbled around his quiet green fields in a mud-caked SUV, noting the minute gradations of the land, which is subtly terraced to allow water to flow downhill, irrigating the fields in slow succession.
“We’re going uphill, believe it or not,” Stoesser said. After more than a half century of farming, he knows what each field needs and when, harvest after harvest. “Just like taking care of your backyard,” he said.
The Houston Chronicle reports if Stoesser’s land hasn’t changed, the economic conditions have. Rice prices have declined for several years, averaging about 10 cents a pound last year, because of competition from huge rice producers like Vietnam and Thailand as well as increases in agricultural productivity that have boosted supplies. Over the past few decades, hundreds of rice farmers in Southeast Texas have given up the crop entirely.
But in mid-July, the Texas rice industry — which is worth about $100 million per year to farmers — was granted a reprieve: a deal to allow U.S. rice sales to China. The industry estimates that China soon could buy 250,000 tons of U.S. rice per year, out of the 9 million tons it produces, which could boost prices significantly.
Although trade between the two countries had been liberalized when China entered the world trade organization in 2001, trade in rice remained off the table. An agreement to allow exports has been in the making for nearly a decade, with talks launched by George W. Bush, continued under Barack Obama and ultimately concluded under President Donald Trump. The deal sets complex safety standards to prevent pests from entering China with rice imported from America, which, if met, opens a market of more than 1 billion rice eaters to U.S. farmers.
The agreement comes at a critical time as the Trump administration prepares to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, potentially threatening agricultural exports to the rice industry’s biggest customer, Mexico.
For the Stoesser farm, selling to China could mean a slightly bigger financial cushion in a business that can see a year’s income decimated by floods or drought or both.
“If we could get to 16 cents instead of 10 cents a pound, it would take a lot of risk out,” Stoesser said. “Trade is the answer to our problems.”
The last few decades have left the Stoessers feeling isolated.
The flat, humid counties east of Houston used to be full of rice fields — in 1968, 70 square miles of Liberty County…