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 3)

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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.

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SRI advocates scratch their heads over such high-tech research. Norman Uphoff, professor of government and international agriculture at Cornell and senior adviser of the SRI Center, often wonders why major U.S. rice growers don’t just adopt SRI practices instead of wasting time on expensive systems that SRI proponents contend are ultimately unsustainable. If growers need evidence, Uphoff can point them to a large-scale, mechanized farm in Pakistan that has had success incorporating SRI practices into a number of crops. The Pakistani experiment, Uphoff notes, “really opened up the door for large-scale production.”

Some rice farmers have no motivation to investigate SRI because water prices remain affordable – or because the system isn’t applicable in their area, says Susan McCouch, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell. She is also the co-organizer of a National Science Foundation-funded project to support small-scale organic rice production in the northeastern United States. McCouch says flat-out that SRI doesn’t work in the northern temperate zone; flooding, for example, is mandatory in those climes to help buffer against cold temperatures early in the season.

“There is no one-size-fits-all,” she says.

McCouch sees SRI as more a belief system than a collection of practices that can be adopted anywhere in the world. SRI, she says, is a trust in the individual farmer – and not Big Ag – to decide what seeds and what agricultural practices are best for his land. In a sense, McCouch is describing a farmer much like Heinz Thomet, who through his own investigations stumbled upon some SRI practices. To McCouch, Thomet may be the perfect embodiment of SRI, which can serve as a symbol for the future of American agriculture.

“We need something like that to believe in agriculture again,” she says.

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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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