January 1, 2014

Chesapeake farmer experiments with dry-land rice

The agricultural system promises to increase crop yields while decreasing water use, chemical dependency and even the amount of arsenic in our grains.

By Tim Carman
The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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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

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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.

Additional Photos Below

But by and large, Virginia was considered an inhospitable place for rice “not because it won’t grow, but from an idea that it requires in order to yield large crops, a hotter sun,” noted the author of an 18th-century volume titled “American Husbandry.”

Wayne Randolph, an agriculture specialist at Colonial Williamsburg, has an alternate theory on why Virginia and its farmers never blossomed into rice producers: “I suspect that it was because they were competing with tobacco and rice in the Low Country.”

In 1880, the U.S. Department of the Interior released its Report on the Productions of Agriculture, which noted that “the single state of South Carolina produces nearly one-half” of the rice grown in the United States (more than 52 million pounds out of a total production of 110 million pounds). Even so, culinary historian Michael Twitty says that rice probably was grown in Maryland as late as the 1880s, mostly for home consumption or trade with neighbors.

“With the emergence of railroads, it was becoming a lot less necessary” to grow backyard rice, Twitty says.

Current rice production has shifted to other parts of the United States, namely Arkansas and Louisiana, but it has little in common with the way rice was apparently grown in Virginia in the 1600s: “There is some reason to believe that it was upland, or ‘dry,’ rice; that is, rice raised more or less as are other grains,” wrote the late Karen Hess in her book, “The Carolina Rice Kitchen.”

If you ask Thomet why he decided to grow rice in a region not known for it, he’ll look you dead in the eye and give you the same answer you might have heard from a 17th-century colonist: “I eat rice.”

CONSERVING A PRECIOUS RESOURCE

For the most part, rice in the United States is grown in flooded fields or the boggy lands near rivers or other bodies of water, after practices that date back millennia to rice farming in China and Southeast Asia. The floodwaters serve a purpose: They control weeds that otherwise would compete with the rice plants, which have a unique ability to survive the oxygen-less environment of a paddy field. But as water becomes a precious resource and as consumers fret over arsenic levels in rice (which are higher in plants grown in paddies), some advocates have been promoting an alternative method: It’s called system of rice intensification, or SRI.

What exactly is SRI? Erika Styger, director of programs at the SRI International Network and Resources Center at Cornell University, lays out four practices that broadly define the system. They are transplanting seedlings at a young age (to promote disease- and pest-resistance); reducing plant density (to decrease competition); adding organic matter such as compost to the soil (to increase fertility); and eliminating flooded fields (to allow the roots to breathe better).

“A lack of oxygen – rice can tolerate it, but rice is not thriving in it,” Styger says. “Usually when you flood the fields, the roots are basically rotting away, because roots need to breathe as well.”

By adopting those methods, or some of them, farmers can produce higher yields (between 20 and 100 percent higher than conventional harvests) with up to 50 percent less water and 90 percent less seed, Styger and her colleagues say. What’s more, SRI can eliminate fertilizers, reduce the methane gases that scientists say contribute to global warming, and dramatically lower the levels of inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form. The latter issue has been a particular concern for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; the agency’s scientists have determined that arsenic in rice (and rice products) poses no short-term risk but are now focused on any potential long-term effects.

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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.

  


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