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 2)

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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

In flooded fields, farmers create the oxygen-depleted conditions in which rice plants can absorb more of the arsenic found naturally in some soils, says John Duxbury, a professor of soil science and international agriculture at Cornell. The SRI approach, conversely, creates a more aerobic or oxygen-rich environment that can lower the amounts of arsenic in a plant, he adds. Duxbury has conducted a handful of preliminary tests that show rice grown with SRI practices have inorganic levels as low as 5 parts per billion, compared to 100 parts per billion for some U.S. rices grown in paddy fields. One of the SRI rices tested was Lotus Foods’ organic Madagascar pink rice.

SRI advocates say they also have the field evidence that the system delivers on its promises. Since its introduction in the 1980s in Madagascar, SRI has been adopted by farmers in more than 50 countries. The SRI Center’s website is rife with research papers and journal articles analyzing the success and occasional setbacks of these practices overseas.

The evidence has been conclusive enough to attract significant endorsements. Over the years, SRI has been championed by a diverse list of organizations, officials and potential funders. Among them: Oxfam America, Africare, Worldwide Fund for Nature, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the immediate past president of the World Bank and at least two state agricultural ministers in India. SRI’s success has also inspired farmers to adapt the practices to other crops.

SRI has even attracted the attention of Jim Carrey. Yes, that Jim Carrey, the actor better known for his comedic turns in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Dumb & Dumber.” Through his Better U Foundation, Carrey has given more than $4 million of his own money to launch and fund the SRI Center at Cornell, which is the epicenter of international SRI research, networking and promotion. After its initial three-year grant, Better U is now helping the center raise money for its annual operations.


Despite its acceptance overseas and its high-profile endorsements, SRI has barely made an impression on U.S. rice growers, aside from sustainability mavericks such as Thomet and Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, the heirloom grain company in Columbia, S.C. Roberts, in fact, is an even rarer breed: He’s raising paddy rice and experimenting with SRI trials in his fields.

“I’m not going to go away from flood rice,” says Roberts, who employs intermittent flooding. “I’m just going to grow twice as much rice.”

Major U.S. rice growers may never even get to the experimentation phase with SRI, which they view as better suited for subsistence farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. “It’s more appropriate for other parts of the world, where land is at a premium and workers are not,” says Michael Klein, vice president of marketing and communications for the USA Rice Federation, an advocacy group for the America rice industry.

“It’s not a method that lends itself to feeding several billion people,” Klein adds. It’s an economic issue: Large-scale rice farmers, Klein says, simply would not be able to afford the labor to weed their fields.

What’s more, the U.S. rice industry is already developing seeds and refining agricultural techniques to increase yields and reduce water use. The industry, for example, has devised ways to limit flooding with the application of herbicides and the use of herbicide-resistant rice varieties, says Steve Linscombe, director of the Louisiana State University AgCenter Rice Research Station near Crowley, La. Linscombe says such systems have helped reduce water use by 15 to 20 percent.

Rice researchers are also developing seed varieties that, one day, may be drought resistant or grown with less water or even tolerant of higher-salinity water. “Water resources are the most limiting resource,” says Linscombe. “You can absolutely grow rice with less water ... It’s coming down the road in 10 years,” at the earliest.

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Additional Photos

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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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