By Patrick D. Bonin
Long before crawfish and rice come together in a tasty etouffee on your dining room table, they’re a perfect match in the fields of countless farming operations throughout South Louisiana.
“They work really well together because rice is an aquatic plant, and the seasons are exactly opposite each other,” said Mark Frugé, with Frugé Aquafarms in Branch. “So you can grow rice and seed the crawfish into it during the slower part of the crawfish season. And the crawfish have no detrimental effect on the rice crop, so they go hand-in-hand perfectly.”
At Frugé Aquafarms, we typically farm about 1,200 acres of crawfish and 1,200 acres of rice each year.
In March, when the crawfish harvest is ramping up in our crawfish ponds, rice seed is planted in the fields designated for that year’s rice crop. When the rice gets to be about 6-inches tall, water is pumped in and the fields are kept in permanent flood until mid-summer, when preparations begin for the rice harvest in August.
As the rice continues to grow through the spring, it provides cooling shade to the water in the ponds. And in May, live mudbugs are seeded into those rice-cooled fields to create next year’s crawfish crop.
“The crawfish mate in the open waters of the rice field, then begin to burrow down beneath the rice to ride out the summer heat in the safety of their burrows,” Mark said. “That way they’re safe when the combines come through to harvest the rice in August.”
The rice crop continues to grow through the heat of summer, eventually topping out around waist-high. In mid-July, water in the rice fields is drained so the fields have time to dry out before harvest begins.
Combines harvest the upper one-third to one-half of the rice stalk, and then separate the grain from the stalk. The straw is blown back into the fields, while the grain is collected in a large hopper behind the combine.
Eventually the grain is transported to giant storage bins, where it’s dried with heated air. When the moisture content reaches about 12%, it is ready to be transported to a local mill for processing.
When the rice harvest is complete, crawfish again take center stage here on the farm. Preparations are made to begin the process of re-flooding the rice fields so the crawfish burrowed beneath them will come out with their babies and begin feeding on the recently cut rice stubble. Levees damaged during the rice harvest are repaired, and the old crawfish ponds are re-leveled to remove boat ruts in anticipation of the following year’s rice crop.
So that’s how a typical year is spent out here on Frugé Aquafarms. Things kick off with crawfish harvest from about January through June. Rice is planted in March, and harvested in August. In September, the rice fields are re-flooded and the crawfish come out of their burrows to feed on the rice stubble. Depending on weather conditions and temperatures, the crawfish harvest could begin late in the fall, and the whole process starts over.
There are lots of uncontrollable factors in the farming business, but under optimum conditions with Mother Nature’s help, we can produce up to 9,000,000 pounds of rice and 1,000,000 pounds of crawfish in a typical year out here on the farm.
Just think about how much etouffee that could make!