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Southern Organic Rice: Project Details

Oct 23, 2018

Project Description

This project is a collaboration between researchers at Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Research & Extension Center, Texas A&M Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, USDA’s ARS Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, University of Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Department of Agriculture, and The Organic Center. It employs a multi-stakeholder research team to develop a multi-disciplinary approach to developing Integrated Pest Management strategies for organic rice production in the Southern United States.

The popularity of organic rice has skyrocketed in the past 20 years. In response to this popularity, organic rice acreage has increased almost six-fold since 1995 with up to half of the acreage in the southern U.S. Despite this rapid expansion, domestic rice production has not been able to keep up with market demand, resulting in increasing pressure from foreign organic rice imports.

Researcher Xin-Gen (Shane) Zhou taking a rice plant sample at the 2016 Beaumont Rice Field Day Tour

Researcher Xin-Gen (Shane) Zhou taking a rice plant sample at the 2016 Beaumont Rice Field Day Tour

One of the reasons why organic rice acreage is not expanding more rapidly is a lack of knowledge about tools that best support rice production. Rice is grown in a unique flooded system, so cropping systems information from other cereal grains is not applicable, and research being done specific to rice systems is funded by conventional check-offs and focuses solely on conventional production.

The unique flooded rice production systems result in increased pressure from the diseases, weeds, and insect pests not commonly-found in dryland cropping systems. This is especially problematic in the South because of the region’s warm, humid environments and the long growing season. Because no pesticides are used in organic systems, there are few developed methods that organic farmers can use to combat these pests.

While pests are among the primary factors limiting the expansion of the organic rice industry, nutrient management in organic rice is also a challenge. As with pest management techniques, most organic nutrient management methods developed for other crops only have limited value for rice, and few studies have been conducted in flooded-rice systems using organically based fertilizers. Thus, organic rice growers are in critical need of strategies that are profitable and sustainable for the management of not only disease, weed and insect pests, but also fertility.

Examining cover crops for use in rice systems

Examining cover crops for use in organic rice production systems

Unfortunately, in addition to the many unique challenges facing rice farmers, rice production also requires high input costs relative to other grain crops. Rice production has expensive irrigation costs to maintain the season-long flood for weed control and stable high yields, and field flooding results in high equipment and labor costs due to needed land leveling and levee preparation. Additionally, there are not many suitable rotation crops that can be grown in rice soils due to the poor drainage required for field flooding. Conventional rice production in the Southern U.S. depends heavily on herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides to manage pests. The primary techniques used by organic growers include controlling pest pressures by maintaining a proper flood, ensuring proper nutrient management via organic soil amendments and/or cover crops, selecting weed-competitive or disease-resistant varieties, establishing good plant stands, and using organic inputs.  However, little is known about the cost effectiveness and profitability of these options, so growers cannot know if they are effective tools for managing risks.

As a result, there is a critical need for information on organic rice systems to help expand production, attract new growers, and meet the demand of this high-value market. This project will address these issues by developing economically viable organic rice production practices for the southern U.S. that will result in improved farm-gate value due to higher yields and reduced losses from weeds, diseases and harmful insects. Specifically, the project focuses on developing cover crop-based production systems in combination with cultivar choice and seed treatment to enhance disease, weed, insect pest, and nutrient management, allowing producers to grow organic rice more sustainably and profitably in the South.

Weed control field study in rice systems

Weed control field study in organic rice

This regional integrated organic rice project involves nine researchers from two of the country’s major rice-growing states – Texas and Arkansas–and combines expertise in plant pathology (Dr. Xin-Gen [Shane] Zhou of Texas A&M ), breeding/genetics (Dr. Anna McClung of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service), nutrient management (Dr. Fugen Dou of Texas A&M), economics (Dr. Brad Watkins of the University of Arkansas- Fayetteville), weed science (Dr. Muthu Bagavathiannan of Texas A&M), entomology (Dr. Mo Way of Texas A&M ), agronomy/crop science (Dr. Bihu Huang of  University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff), agronomy/soil science (Dr. Sixte Ntamatungiro of University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff), and outreach communications (Dr. Shade of The Organic Center). Overall, the research team will devote approximately 80% of their time on research and 20% on extension.

Results from this project will empower growers to make informed choices on inputs that will result in sound pest management, higher and more consistent yields, improved milling and grain quality, and enhanced soil quality. This will help the market for domestically produced organic rice to continue to expand, and will sustain rural communities in areas where conventional rice acreage has been decreasing.

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