Rodney Pederson is caught in a vise: low prices squeezing from one side, escalating production costs pushing from the other.

He made his 22nd rice crop from his Waller County, Texas, farm this fall and admits that making a profit gets harder each year.

Water, for instance, costs twice as much to pump as it did when he started, and that's just fuel costs. “Every year the water table goes down a little more,” he says. “That means more horsepower to get it to the surface and more money to run the pumps.”

He has done about all he can to improve efficiency and looks for water issues to become even more critical.

“Our wells are deep, but Houston is running out of water,” he says, “so we'll have to compete. Most farmers in this area (about 60 miles from Houston) are doing all they can to conserve water, and we realize it is the limiting resource in rice production.”

In adjacent Wharton County, Ken Hlavinka faces a similar problem. “Our water supply is adequate now, but nearby cities are growing, and that will affect our water supply. Houston and San Antonio could take water from the area,” he says. “Water for agriculture is not high on the priority list for government.”

Pederson and Hlavinka have done all they know to use water efficiently. “We try to give rice a chance to make its potential without spending too much money,” Pederson says.

Both men have used laser leveling to prevent runoff. “My farm is as level as it can be,” Pederson says. “All my land is precision leveled and I get by with the absolute minimum amount of water to make the crop. I use a dirt bucket all year to help hold water on the land.”

Hlavinka also uses laser leveling to conserve water and has installed underground pipelines to transport water into most of his rice and some of his cotton fields. “Underground pipe saves a lot of water,” he says. “We don't lose moisture to canal seepage, and we can put water exactly where we need it. We don't lose water to evaporation. This is a very efficient system.”

Both agree that the rice industry in Texas will continue to decline, primarily because of water issues. “Rice demands a lot of water,” Hlavinka says.

“It's a limited resource and it costs money to use it,” Pederson adds. “When a well goes down, we don't see another one drilled to replace it.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com