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July 16, 2024

Kirk Satterfield

Bolivar Countian is current chair of USA Rice

by Becky Gillette 

The Bolivar Bullet

Kirk Satterfield not only grows rice on the Bolivar County family farm in operation for more than 50 years, but also has a major influence on the entire industry by serving as chair of the USA Rice Federation. USA Rice has a mission “to further the well-being of our members and ensure the long-term sustainability and future competitiveness of U.S. rice.” The organization is involved in lobbying, research, education and promotion of leadership.

“My grandfather was a farmer,” said Satterfield. “My father, Travis, grew his first rice crop in 1974 and we have grown rice continuously since that time. It is good to still have Dad around on the farm. He is a great resource. Our rice acres fluctuate each year. We rotate rice with soybeans. Every now and then we sneak in a few acres of corn. We raised some corn this year but haven’t done that since 2019.”

Prior to 1974, only American farmers who had rice allotments could grow the third most important food crop in the world after corn and wheat. 

“The first commercial rice crop in Mississippi was grown in 1948,” he said. “The acres for the next several years increased, but were still limited. Rice was still relatively unknown in the early 1970s. There were people growing rice but without the historically profitable commodities like cotton, bankers were skeptical. It was hard to get loans.” 

The U.S. produces only one percent of the world’s rice crop. Satterfield says that makes the U.S. a price taker and not a price maker.

“We have to take what the market is giving us because we can’t set the price producing only one percent of the crop,” said Satterfield. “That makes it a challenge to keep on top of trade issues. On the production side, this past year was challenging with flat rice prices and record high input costs including for diesel and fertilizer. That has eased a bit this year, but input costs are still high. Rice is a pretty expensive crop to grow.”

This past year was the lowest rice acreage in the U.S. in 40 years. The drought in California hit rice production, and the average projected loss on sample rice farms was $440 per acre in 2022, according to the Ag and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M. 

“Senator John Boozman and his staff along with others worked closely with USA rice to establish ad hoc assistance with the Rice Production Program,” said Satterfield. “This was critical in an adverse year. I think we are looking at a comeback. The droughts in California turned into record rainfall. My friends out there say things are pretty much back to normal. We are back up to 2.8 million acres this year from 2.2 million acres in 2022. We are sort of getting back to normal, but input prices are fairly high and margins aren’t great.”

Satterfield became chair of USA Rice in August 2022, and will serve a two-year term. His job as advocate for the rice industry has included testifying before the U.S. House Ag Subcommittee. He travels to promote rice not just in the U.S. but in other countries.

India has been trying to strengthen its domestic market, so it has been over-subsidizing rice farming and the government holds tens of millions of metric tons of rice in storage. Satterfield said India’s ban on rice exports is going to cause a problem for food insecure nations, primarily in the Middle East and Africa, that have been dependent on low-priced rice. 

“The U.S. might benefit in rice sales in the short term, but not in the long term,” said Satterfield. “Eventually they will start dumping this rice at prices you can’t compete with. In the end, U.S. rice production will suffer.”

The USA Rice Federation works to “develop and influence legislative and regulatory policies favorable to the growth and profitability of the U.S. rice industry.” It amazes Satterfield how active members are in all corners of the globe. 

“There are farmers, millers and merchants working under an umbrella organization that has a common goal of making our industry better,” said Satterfield. “Our February conference in Washington D.C. is always well attended. We visit with a large number of legislators from rice producing states and advocate for the industry. We have a great staff that works on behalf of the rice industry literally every day. The rice industry tries to fight above its weight class. It is a niche industry compared to corn or soybeans.”

With few exceptions, most rice farms in the U.S. are family owned. In addition to first-generation farmers, you see a lot of multi-generational farmers like the Satterfields.

The economic impact multiplies when you consider indirect jobs created from sales of fertilizer, chemicals and other supplies, plus processing. 

“The money filters through the economy,” said Satterfield. “Rice production makes a big impact on the economy of towns. It has to go to a mill in most instances, so milling operations are a significant sector in industry providing jobs for what has to be done after the rice leaves the field.”

What Satterfield enjoys most about production is the process of the growing season. You plant a crop, nurture it through the year and, at the end of the year, you see the benefits of your labor. Every day is a little different. 

“Rice is a challenging crop,” he said. “You go through the trials and tribulations, but also a lot of rewarding moments.”

Satterfield said he knows many farmers past the usual retirement age who keep working.

“It keeps you active,” he said. “It keeps you going. I am very proud of the pioneers in our industry and the people today who work to keep it strong.”

There are concerns about water availability for ag in the Delta, and rice is a crop that requires a lot of water. However, rice farmers are true conservationists.

“From 1980 to 2015, rice farmers reduced water usage by 52%,” said Satterfield. “So, we are using half the water of forty years ago. That is attributed to a lot of things including precision land leveling and people doing innovative things to recapture and use the surface water. There is a real effort to reduce over pumping. Everyone is very conscious, and we don’t want to over pump or waste the water.

“USA Rice is proud of our many partnerships with groups like Ducks Unlimited. We recently celebrated ten years of the Rice Stewardship Partnership which supports critical research and development of innovative techniques and practices to improve production, conservation, and sustainability.” 

Satterfield said he is very lucky to work with family and crew who are supportive of what he does with USA Rice. 

“I feel very blessed to be able to work with family and a great crew who provide support when I have to be gone from time to time,” he said.