"We are wrapping up the later rice that is being planted right now,” said Brent Batchelor, Extension agent in Matagorda County, adding the rice planted in early March is progressing well.

Statewide, the Texas Agricultural Statistics Service predicts 191,000 acres of rice will be planted in 2003, down from 206,000 acres in 2002. McGregor said rice producers in the Waller area should have completed planting their 6,000-7,000 acres in the county within the next two weeks. He estimated that 95 percent of the crop has been planted.

Batchelor said almost 20,000 acres would be planted in Matagorda County this year, which is down from previous years. Historically, producers in the region have planted as many as 50,000 acres.

The poor economy has hurt rice farmers, leading them to rely on the government for subsidies to support their operations. "If it were not for the government programs, (rice farmers) would not be able to raise rice," McGregor said.

"(Subsidies) are the only thing keeping them in business right now," Batchelor said. Some rice farmers grow row crops such as soybeans and grain sorghum to help offset poor rice prices, he said.

Mark Waller, Extension economist in College Station, said it takes more than poor prices to convince a rice farmer to switch to other crops. "Rice farmers are very optimistic," he said. "Farming is the career that they have chosen and trained for. Rice farmers a lot of the time don't want to change. It's what they know how to do best."

Batchelor said if rice is planted early enough in the season, producers can usually get a second harvest in October. "The earlier we can get the (rice) planted, the better chance we have of a second crop."

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com