(06/30/23) CROWLEY, La. — With a heat wave gripping Louisiana, scores of farmers sweated, sipped water and shaded themselves with hats and event programs as they toured the LSU AgCenter H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station during its annual field day June 28.
The sweltering conditions proved a relevant backdrop to some of the research featured at the event. AgCenter scientists are trying to find ways to help farmers and their rice crop beat the heat — and two avenues they are exploring are planting earlier in the spring and developing faster-maturing varieties.
Both could allow farmers to harvest sooner so that their rice isn’t exposed to intense summer weather or the risk of tropical storms for too long. They also could help set farmers up for a successful ratoon, or second, crop.
It’s unclear how the current high temperatures and lack of rainfall will affect the 435,000 acres of rice being grown in Louisiana this year.
“It looks like we have a pretty good rice crop out there,” said Ronnie Levy, the AgCenter rice specialist. “Weather conditions still are such that we don’t know how it’s going to end up because of the real hot weather that we’re having right now, so it may affect some of the later-planted rice as far as pollination and grain fill.”
Levy has been studying how rice responds to planting dates ranging from late February to May. Most farmers plant rice in mid-March and April, depending on what part of the state they are in.
“When we plant early, then typically we beat some of these hotter conditions,” he explained. “Rice respirates at night. It actually uses energy to stay cool at night, so it burns some of the energy that it makes during the day. So if we can grow rice under cooler conditions, then we improve the quality and yield of rice.”
Shifting to an earlier schedule has been a focus in the industry in recent years.
“It’s less time in the field, less time for a weather event to cause some damage, less time for pumping and irrigation,” said Adam Famoso, a rice breeder at the station.
He is contributing to the cause by developing rice varieties that grow in a shorter timeframe, allowing for an earlier harvest. One such variety is called CLL19, which is in commercial seed production and could be available to growers as early as next year.
Besides its early maturity, this variety — which is part of the Clearfield system that helps with weed management — has other desirable traits.
“The excitement around CLL19 really centers around yield,” Famoso said. “We see a good ratoon potential on this variety, good milling quality, excellent blast resistance.”
Famoso is excited about two other varieties that are nearing commercial release and could help fill voids in the industry.
One is a conventional, long-grain line called 2207. Farmers have been demanding more conventional options, Famoso said, and this one has good yield potential and grain quality. It also is resistant to blast disease, something that’s not common in conventional lines.
The other variety is 2126, a conventional, jasmine type that has improved yield potential, blast resistance, good milling quality and an appealing aroma.
“Jasmine has really had a lot more attention and interest from the industry, much more demand. Acres have gone up a lot,” Famoso said, adding that much of the aromatic and specialty rice consumed in the United States is imported from Thailand and Vietnam. “What we’re trying to do as an industry as a whole is make people aware that we have locally grown, much more sustainably produced options of jasmine rice grown right here.”
Each of the three up-and-coming varieties have their own unique qualities and fit different production and marketing needs. While the rice station focuses on developing varieties for Louisiana farmers, rice is produced and consumed globally — and about half of Louisiana’s rice is exported.
The industry has been working to recapture markets in Latin America, where consumers prefer rice that is less sticky, Famoso said. He has been working to develop varieties that are palatable to international customers, including Addi Jo, which has high amylose content.
Other stops on the field tour included presentations on rice diseases, insect issues, weed control and hybrid development. After spending the first half of the morning in the field, attendees gathered indoors to cool off and hear from additional speakers before lunch.
“This day allows us to really highlight the research that our faculty work extremely hard on all year long,” station director Kurt Guidry told the crowd, pointing out that the event has been held annually for 114 years.
Located in Crowley, the station is in the heart of Louisiana rice country. Much of the state’s rice is grown in southern Louisiana, and a smaller cluster of production can be found in northeastern parishes.
Michael Salassi, director of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, said the rice station — particularly its variety development program — helps farmers remain profitable in the face of many challenges. The station supports an industry that contributes more than $550 million to the Louisiana economy annually, according to the most recent AgCenter figures.
“Rice is no different than any other agronomic crop. Production costs per acre go up every year, market prices go up and down,” he said. “And so the only tool that producers have to stay economically viable over the long run is higher-yielding varieties.”
Jim Harper, president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, noted that every variety of rice grown on his Rapides Parish farm came from the AgCenter breeding program.
Clay Schexnayder, speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives; Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry; and Matt Lee, LSU vice president for agriculture, all celebrated wins in the state legislative session that ended earlier this month.
Millions were allocated to the AgCenter in budget and capital outlay bills, Schexnayder said, which will help provided much-needed facility improvements, equipment investments and other items that support research and extension programs.
“The funding for the AgCenter, for these research stations is absolutely critical,” Strain said. “For every dollar spent here, it puts $20 in the economy over a 20-year period.”
Lee said the AgCenter has had a “stellar year.” Besides securing funding at the Legislature, faculty have been doing a good job of bringing in grant dollars, and some administrative changes have been made to better serve the organization and its clientele.
“While LSU Athletics is winning on the field, the AgCenter is winning in the fields with you all, and we’re winning for Louisiana,” Lee said, referring the LSU baseball team’s victory in the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, two days prior.
Strain noted the industry’s strong support of the AgCenter, including funding from the Louisiana Rice Research Board. “That’s why we have here the preeminent rice research station in the world.”
He emphasized the importance of expanding rice production and introducing new varieties, especially those offering tolerance to heat, drought and pests. World rice consumption is outpacing production, representing “the greatest challenge of our lifetimes — and the greatest opportunities,” Strain said.
“We must here in the United States grow our production at least 3% a year,” he said. “The rest of the world cannot. They don’t have our science. They don’t have our technology. They don’t have our innovation. They don’t have these centers. And they don’t have you — each and every one of you, from the farmers to the researchers to the extension agents and everybody in between. What happens if we don’t? It’s real simple. A big part of the world will go hungry.”
This year’s field day was dedicated the late Ida Wenefrida, an AgCenter researcher who died in March 2023. Wenefrida arrived at the station as a postdoctoral researcher in 1999 and was known for her smiling, outgoing personality.
“I don’t think we can say enough about how everybody felt about Ida here at the station, both as a coworker and collaborator and as a personal friend,” said Steve Linscombe, the station’s retired director and rice breeder. “She did outstanding work in her research projects, and a lot of it was in collaboration with Dr. Herry Utomo, who was her husband.”
The couple’s signature accomplishment came in recent years with the development of a high-protein, low-glycemic rice variety called Frontière.