Checkoff funds are paid by rice farmers, 3 cents for every 100 pounds of their crop for promotion and 5 cents per hundredweight for research.
The decision by Judge Tim Kelley of the 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge prevents Dr. Mike Strain, commissioner of Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, from releasing the funds until July 1. The judge’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a small group of farmers from Jefferson Davis Parish who contend the state law dictates that the money can be transferred only once a year, on July 1, to the boards responsible for rice promotion and rice research. The same group also has another lawsuit, assigned to District Judge Janice Clark, that challenges the referendum held in January for renewal of the checkoff program.
The funds involved total approximately $800,000 for promotion, and $1.3 million for research.
Dr. Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station, said the effects of the funding delay could be catastrophic, possibly jeopardizing research projects including variety development, and an exodus of critical personnel because their salaries could not be paid.
A disruption of the cash flow could “undermine more than a century of progress in rice research by disrupting the business operations model for the Rice Research Station and other rice scientists supported by these funds.”
The projects currently funded were approved for funding in October 2011. Historically, the research board issues checks quarterly to the LSU AgCenter to cover all AgCenter projects approved for funding by the board.
“Stability of funding is critical in any research effort. This ruling will definitely negatively impact the effectiveness of this dedicated and talented group of LSU AgCenter scientists,” Linscombe said.
Dr. Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF), said he will go forward with an appeal. He said if the appeal fails, the law could be changed in the legislature, but any changes would not go into effect until July 1.
“It puts us in a difficult situation to have sufficient funding for the Rice Research Station,” Strain said. “I’m going to do everything I can.”
Assistant Attorney General Patricia Wilton represents the LDAF. She said the ruling will be appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We don’t agree,” she said. “The law does not prohibit the agriculture commissioner from making transfers more than once a year.”
“Customarily, the LDAF has disbursed the money on a monthly basis since 1973,” said Jackie Loewer, a rice farmer and chairman of the Louisiana Rice Research Board. “This means our contractual commitments will be interrupted until the money is received. It disrupts funding of the entire research initiative.”
The research board decides how the money is to be spent. Loewer said the ruling, if it is upheld on appeal, will interfere with worthy research projects designed to help farmers with problems, and to develop new varieties.
“Without research, rice farming would cease to exist in southwest Louisiana,” Loewer said. “These projects are approved by the board with the input of rice producers. The money funds research by scientists working together.”
Loewer said this year’s severe outbreak of blast disease is being addressed by research conducted at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station near Crowley.
Kevin Berken, a rice farmer and chairman of the Louisiana Rice Promotion Board, said the lawsuit is short-sighted.
“This is bad for the rice industry,” Berken said. “It doesn’t make much sense. We’ve been very successful at promotions, and this puts it all at risk.”
The availability of the check-off funds enables the rice industry to leverage promotional grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said. “That enhances our ability to market U.S. rice.”
Farmer John Owen of Rayville, president of the Louisiana Rice Growers Association, said the check-off program was developed through a democratic process. Renewal of the check-off was approved in a referendum held in January with a vote of 357-65 for the research funding, and 321-107 for promotion.
“The check-off program has served this industry well for 40 years,” he said. “There is a small group not pleased with it.”
Owen said the opposition group first tried to attack the check-off program in the legislature with a bill that failed to get out of committee, then chose to pursue litigation.
“They are ignoring the will of the producers,” Owen said. “The end result is a tremendous amount of time and resources are being wasted on a squabble over something already decided.”
Owen said anyone with a complaint about the way money is spent could get a seat on one of the two boards that oversee how the money is spent.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs say their share of check-off assessments are being made under protest, and they hint that they may attempt to secure past check-off payments. “Plaintiffs do not concede or contend that damages that plaintiffs may decide to seek, claim or recover in the Declaratory Judgment Action are limited to future payments made under protest.”
Plaintiffs listed in the title of the lawsuit are Mike Doise, Jude Doise, Luke Doise, Doise Farms Inc., Karl Krielow, Glendon Marceaux and Philip Watkins. An addendum lists 43 additional plaintiffs that includes farmers, their family members and 11 incorporated farms.