Wednesday, April 23, 2014
By Tim Carman
The Washington Post
When Heinz Thomet decided in 2011 to plant rice, perhaps the first farmer in more than 130 years to do so in the Chesapeake region, he remembered a magazine article he had read nearly two decades earlier. It concerned a Jamaican man who’d moved to Albany, N.Y., and adopted a practice that deviated from those of virtually every rice farmer in America: He grew his plants without flooded or swampy land.
Organic farmer Heinz Thomet harvests rice at his farm, Next Step Produce in Maryland, where he is experimenting by growing the crop on dry land rather than in a flooded paddy.
Photos for The Washington Post by Logan Mock-Bunting
Thomet and others who support the dry-land technique believe that it can lower levels of inorganic arsenic and reduce methane gases that scientists say contribute to global warming.
“I thought, ‘If they can do it in Albany, we can grow it here,’ ” recalled Thomet, co-owner of Next Step Produce in Newburg, Md.
A Swiss native who grew up on a farm, Thomet, 54, knew that the porous sandy soil in Charles County would never hold water for a traditional rice paddy, at least not without major expense. So he did research and relied on his 40 years of farming experience to cobble together his own idiosyncratic method for growing rice, unaware that some of his practices would place him squarely in the middle of a low-rumbling debate on the best way to produce the grain.
Thomet has unwittingly aligned himself with a small group of experimental U.S. farmers and hobbyists, probably no more than 50, who are breaking with a tradition that dates to Colonial America. They’re rejecting paddy rice in favor of an increasingly accepted agricultural system that promises to increase crop yields while decreasing water use, chemical dependency and even the amount of arsenic in our grains.
The beauty of the system, advocates say, is its emphasis on education, not technology. Any rice farmer can reap the benefits just by reading about the sustainable methods and incorporating them. Growers often need no proprietary seeds, herbicides or fertilizers, effectively marginalizing the companies that profit from current rice production methods.
Is that why Big Ag has turned a cold shoulder to the system?
ORGANIC FARMER WITH A WILD STREAK
Heinz Thomet is the antithesis of Big Ag. Partly surrounded by conventional farms that raise crops common to Maryland – corn and soybeans mostly – Thomet is a certified organic farmer with an experimental streak as wild as the graying beard that engulfs his face. Next Step has, over the years, sold young ginger, miniature kiwis, persimmons, figs and a variety of grains beyond the winter wheat that’s popular in the state. In that sense, rice aligns perfectly with Thomet’s unorthodox, free-thinking approach to agriculture.
As he began experimenting with rice, Thomet tried a few different seeds, including a jasmine variety and the famous Carolina Gold, which was resurrected in South Carolina in the 1980s after being all but left for dead. Yet it was a Japanese variety, Koshihikari, that responded best to the particular soil, climate and agricultural practices at Next Step. This fall, Thomet harvested more than 400 pounds and started selling the short-grain brown rice for $12 a pound at the FreshFarm Market in Washington.
It’s not clear when a farmer last grew rice in the Chesapeake region for commercial sale, export or personal use. If anyone has planted the grain in recent decades in either Maryland or Virginia, the effort wasn’t enough to be mentioned in the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years. In his 24 years at Virginia Tech, Carl Griffey, professor of crop genetics and breeding, says no one has ever called him with questions about rice.
Yet, despite its rich connection to the Carolinas, rice does have a modest history in Virginia. In the 1600s, colonists at Jamestown carried out early experiments in rice farming, “not without some temporary success,” wrote Lewis Cecil Gray in his 1933 volume, “History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860.” The grain, in fact, was spotted in Virginia as late as 1781, when a soldier marching to Yorktown noticed a field of rice, “which I thought was a great curiosity,” Lt. William Feltman wrote in his journal.
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When Thomet was considering trying the dry-land approach, he remembered the story of a farmer who adopted it in Albany, N.Y. “I thought, ‘If they can do it in Albany, we can grow it here,’ ” he said.