Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
BELL CITY – It’s a nice cool spring day, but rice farmer Mark Zaunbrecher is anxious for warmer weather.
“I hope I start sweating. That means the rice will start growing.”
But it would be a few days of unusually cool weather before he would raise a sweat.
Since he planted starting March 14, Zaunbrecher had been expecting the crop to take off, but the young seedlings were stalled by consistently chilly weather.
By late April, he would have started flooding fields but even the earliest planted rice was only at the 3-4 leaf stage.
Zaunbrecher and fellow farmers across south Louisiana were eagerly awaiting a warm-up.
The average temperature for Lake Charles in April was 2.5 degrees below normal, according to the National Weather Service. At 65.9 degrees, the average temperature in April was only .6 degrees warmer than the average March temperature.
That all changed after May 1, with temperatures climbing into the high 80s.
Dr. Dustin Harrell, LSU AgCenter extension rice specialist, said rice responded favorably to the warmth. “It has really helped the rice rebound. We went from winter to summer pretty quick.”
He said dry conditions have provided a good chance for farmers to apply fertilizer and herbicides.
Harrell said the warm, dry weather allowed farmers in north Louisiana to get their rice planted quickly.
Zaunbrecher is in charge of growing rice, soybeans and forage for Sweet Lake Farm Partners, owned by the Leach Family of Lake Charles. He has worked for the company 28 years, but has decided to retire after the 2019 crop.
Dr. Steve Linscombe, retired director of the Rice Research Station at Crowley, said Zaunbrecher is an asset. “Mark is a true leader of the Louisiana rice industry. He has very deep roots in southwest Louisiana rice production.”
Linscombe said Zaunbrecher has been an early adopter of new technology. “He has been a leader of the blackbird control program, and under his guidance this program has lessened the severity of bird damage for rice producers throughout the region.”
Zaunbrecher is a fifth generation farmer. His father, Phillip Zaunbrecher, farmed on Lacassine Co. land near Hayes. “I was born and raised there.”
He went straight from high school to the field, and he farmed on his own from 1973 until 1990 when he did some consulting work and that’s when he was hired by Sweet Lake Land Co.
Zaunbrecher said he figured his way of growing rice 10 miles to the east of the Sweet Lake area would be no different in the Sweet Lake area, but he was wrong.
“It’s been a challenge. Most of what I knew when I came here did not apply. You can go 3 miles north of here and it’s different.”
For one thing, he said, the area doesn’t seem to get as much sunlight which slows growth.
The area even had its own soil problem, which came to be known as Calcasieu disorder. The ground would release sulfurous gas, and plants would die after roots turned black. The only solution was to drain a field. But Zaunbrecher said the problem hasn’t been found in about 12 years.
Thunderstorms seem to dump a higher amount of rainfall on the Sweet Lake area that complicates fungicide applications. “We had more than 100 inches of rain last year.”
When it’s wet like it was last year, airplanes can’t use Sweet Lake airstrips because of the soggy ground, adding to the complications.
The area’s soil drains poorly, he said. “You get an inch of rain over here, it takes a week to dry. If you work it too damp, it just gums up.”
And then the wind is always blowing so rice has to be tall enough to withstand wave action. Zaunbrecher figures when he does flood this year, the level will have to be brought up gradually as the plants grow out of their stunted condition.
Zaunbrecher said saltwater is a problem in the area. During severe droughts, salt starts to show up in well water. After hurricanes, like Rita in 2005, saltwater gets pushed north.
After Rita, he tried to grow a crop but the salty soil yielded a crop he’d rather forget. It took a couple of years before the land was able to produce good yields, he said.
Zaunbrecher said he has talked to old timers about farming in the early days, and they recall having to clear crabs from the wooden flumes used to move water, and that told him salt has long been a problem in the area.
He’s worried about the water for this year’s crop. “Our surface water is as low as it’s ever been. It’s going to be interesting when we do start pumping.”
Many of the fields have had rice grown for more than a century. Remnants of irrigation canals from the early days of rice farming still convey water to those fields. The Sweet Lake Canal which draws water from Lacassine Bayou remains viable, providing water to Sweet Lake Farm Partners, and other farmers in along its 16-mile reach. Each year, the canal is drained and sprayed for weed control.
Rice grown on Sweet Lake Farm property is in a 2-year rotation, with a fallow year followed by a crop. Soybeans are grown on some rice acreage, but he said weather is a factor when it comes to planting. “The last 2 years, we’ve only been able to plant beans two days.”
He said last year’s soybean yield averaged about 32 barrels.
Ryegrass and bermudagrass for the cattle operation at Sweet Lake are grown separately from the rice ground.
The company is slowly getting into the crawfish business as the infrastructure improvements are made gradually.
Last year, he said the average yield for Sweet Lake was 47 barrels dry. “I’m proud of that for the year we had, especially rice going underwater three times.”
He said the first flood came in the spring when rice was young, followed by a tropical event in June that brought flooding rains. The season ended with Hurricane Harvey that flooded the second crop, making much of it unharvestable. “It was just an ocean. You couldn’t see anything.”
RiceTec hybrids with the Clearfield trait are used on all the Sweet Lake Farm rice acreage, which totals 2,020 this year, down about 300 acres because of a pipeline being laid across some of the property.
Zaunbrecher said panicle blight is the worst disease for the area, and all of the hybrid is treated with fungicides.
To lessen the likelihood of disease and to reduce excess chaff, the amount of nitrogen is kept to 120-130 units per acre, applied with a precision ag equipment using data from grid sampling.
Usually, he said, about 90 percent of the acreage is ready for planting with a no-till drill, but the wet fall prevented most of the field work. “This year I think I had 20 percent of my ground ready to go.”
He said during his first 9 years at Sweet Lake, he wasn’t able to plow until the spring and much of the time he had to use a water buffalo and a chisel plow. “Working ground here is not a right, it’s a privilege.”
Zaunbrecher uses Dermacor on all rice seed to address insect problems that include rice water weevils and borers. In addition, all seed is treated with AV-1011 bird repellent because of the high populations of blackbirds and ducks in the area. (A sister company, Sweet Lake Land, has a duck hunting and fishing operation also at Grosse Savanne.) “As soon as duck season ends, I like to drain everything and get them (ducks) on their way.”
Zaunbrecher’s efforts to get birds out of the rice fields led him to getting a federal firearms license in 1985 so he could buy guns and ammo wholesale.
If someone is looking for a particular gun, he can find it. Or if someone buys or sells a gun out-of-state, Zaunbrecher can use his firearms license to ship and receive. But he only works with people he knows, and, “I don’t keep any inventory.”
“Generally when they come to me, they can’t find it anywhere else.”
During the last 8 years many guns and ammo was difficult to source because of a buying frenzy, he said, but now firearm inventories are back to normal and the ammo supply is better, he said. But .22-caliber ammo is still in short supply.
That interfered with Zaunbrecher’s favorite caliber for scaring birds away. He doesn’t just shoot a couple of rounds. It’s more like a couple dozen from a rifle with a banana clip.
“My record is three bricks of .22 ammo in one day.” (A brick contains 500 rounds.)
He said he was shooting so many .22 rounds that he would wear out the rifling of a Marlin .22-caliber.
Different guns are more difficult to clean, he said. “When it comes to a .22, you can’t beat a Ruger.”
He enjoys shooting the AK-47, and he said the loud report is quite effective at scaring ducks from a field. “That’s the ultimate Mexican squealer gun.”
Zaunbrecher enjoys deer hunting, and he goes to Missouri and Texas to chase whitetails. He doesn’t have the passion for duck hunting anymore, mostly because duck hunting doesn’t seem to be as good as he remembers.
After retirement, he’ll have a lot more time to work with guns and to work on his two show cars, both Plymouth GTXs, one from 1967 and another from 1969, with 440 cubic inch engines and 4-barrel carbs.
And he hopes he and his wife, Alicia, will be able to travel.