US rice farmers want feds to open more foreign export markets

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - By Danielle Thomas – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - You may only think about rice when you're making gumbo or jambalaya, so you probably didn't know that Mississippi is one of the leading rice producers in the United States. This week, some heavy hitters in the rice farming industry are in Biloxi for a conference.

Rice farmers say government help could translate into more jobs  including some right here in the Magnolia state.

Marvin Cochran grows rice in the Mississippi Delta. He joined hundreds of rice farmers at the meeting to try to figure out what direction the industry should take.

"We're also selling a lot of rice overseas into Iraq, into Turkey, Europe," said Cochran. "The Europeans like a lot of our parboiled rice. There's a lot of foreign markets out there and we need to create even more."

The United States is the fourth largest exporter of rice: 45 percent grown in this country is shipped to other countries. The USA Rice Federation says the government needs to help them grow overseas markets by passing free trade agreements. However, trade and politics can be touchy.

Jackie Loewer is the board chairman of the USA Rice Federation.

"We have these free trade agreements that are out there," Loewer said. "We're not involved in the Korea one. They've left us off the table. That's a highly sensitive issue for Korea so we're not in that discussion."

"But we are in Columbia. We're in Panama and we're in favor of those trade agreements and we encourage that they would be passed as soon as possible."

Marvin Cochran said Mississippi rice fields used to have a lucrative export market to Cuba, but trade sanctions decades ago ended that.

"The policies that we have in place in Washington now are still keeping the people, the Cuban people from having and enjoying a great, value product that we could raise right here in Mississippi," Cochran said. "Create jobs in the Mid-South. Increase acreage. Increase milling. Increase transportation. All this would create jobs that we desperately need especially in the Delta and Mississippi as a whole. "

Mississippi Agricultural Commissioner Lester Spell gave the opening remarks for the conference.

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