If things had turned out a little differently in 1929, Raney Nutt might have grown up on Crowley’s Ridge, farming cotton. But they didn’t, and Nutt grew up with rice, riding with his grandfather to the elevator when he was 2 and driving a combine at age 12.
Life can take some unusual twists and turns. In 1929, Raney Nutt’s grandfather traded farms with another grower, and his family moved down off the ridge that runs through northeast Arkansas and into rice country between Jonesboro and Paragould in Greene County.
That’s how his grandfather, Gordon Nutt, and his father, Richard Nutt, became involved with growing rice, and how Raney wound up riding with his grandfather to deliver rice to Riceland Foods when he was 2 years old. Later, when his father needed him on the farm, Raney was ready to step up and help finish the harvest.
“We had some strong winds that blew our Nato rice flat on the ground one year,” says Raney Nutt. “It took every one on the farm to help harvest the crop that year, and my father put me on the combine.”
Raney continued to help out on the farm through high school and then attended Arkansas State University, graduating with a degree in agribusiness and agricultural economics. He became the third generation to farm rice on the family’s operation in 1983. Now, his son, Tyler, is farming with him while completing his work on an MBA degree at Arkansas State.
The operation grows corn, rice, soybeans and wheat. Nutt plants long grain and medium grain rice. The acreage of the latter has become a subject of conjecture, given the water problems in California, which has been a traditional medium grain producer for export to the Far East.
“We have grown medium grain off and on for years, but consistently in the last five or six years,” says Nutt. “Before, we didn’t have as many options for medium grain. Now you can forward contract it, and, in some cases, lock in a premium to long grain.”
But, he cautions, “You need to have a contract for medium grain before you put a seed in the ground.”
Most analysts agree California’s rice acreage will be down again in 2015 due to reduced allocations of irrigation water. California’s plantings, which are mostly medium grain, were down 25 percent in 2014.
Questions remain about how much lower California’s acreage will go and whether medium grain in the Mid-South can substitute for medium grain in California. Another issue is whether rice prices are high enough to bring more rice into production in the Mid-South.
“Rice just isn’t selling the way we had hoped,” says Tim Walker, a former rice agronomist with Mississippi State University, who is now general manager of Horizon Ag, a company that supplies Clearfield rice varieties to seed distributors.
U.S. rice exporters had just lost another tender of rice to Iraq, a traditional long grain market, when Walker made those comments. The Iraqis purchased rice from Vietnam instead. U.S. rice farmers are having trouble understanding why Iraq has not been buying major quantities of U.S. rice.
Because of the up and down nature of the rice market, Nutt, over the years, has become more diversified in his cropping system, both from the standpoint of long grain and medium grain rice and with corn and soybeans. “We’re longtime corn growers. We’ve been growing it since 1988 to try to spread our risk.
“We have identified our best rice ground and our best corn ground,” he said. “We’ve been moving rice away from the better corn land. Corn and soybeans have been offering better returns until now so we’ve taken advantage of the higher prices and being able to conserve water with center pivots on the corn ground.”
Back on medium grain rice, Jupiter has been the main variety for Nutt’s operation. He has planted the new Clearfield 271 medium grain and plans to try more in 2015.
“Last year was the first year we had Clearfield 271,” said Nutt. “It’s not as aggressive as Jupiter, but it gives you the Clearfield technology, which is something we’ve needed in medium grain rice. It is competitive with the hybrids, and that’s what everyone judges varieties by now.
“I’m glad we have new options,” he said, adding that he loves the agronomics of medium grain. “I know LSU and Arkansas are both working on new medium grain varieties. I believe they have a new AREX 1021 that had very high yields.”
Nutt says he sometimes feels like rice producers are in a fishbowl, and those who grow medium grain varieties are no exception.
“We’re always trying to make sure we meet the purchasers’ criteria,” he said, referring to the standards set by companies who contract for medium grain rice. “It feels like we have people watching everything we do.”
Buyers take on a bigger role in medium grain because of limited market for medium grain. “If Kellogg’s or another buyer doesn’t approve of a new variety, it’s dead.”
Nutt bases his yield goals on reaching 180 to 190 bushels per acre. He has harvested two 200-bushel-per-acre crops and the 2014 crop came close to the 200-bushel mark.
2015 is shaping up to be another wet spring in the Mid-South. Unusual back-to-back snow and ice events in February have been followed by rains that have kept many producers out of their fields when they would normally be preparing them for planting. The situation is similar to 2013 and 2014.
“We know we can make a crop later if we don’t get planted early,” he said. “We didn’t start harvest until the 15th of September in 2014, but everything turned out fine. The rice was a little harder to dry because it turned off cool. But we never try to dry our rice below 16 percent to 18 percent moisture.”
The water requirement for long and medium grain is roughly the same. Water has not been as much of a problem in Greene County as it has been further south in the Arkansas rice belt. The water table has been dropping in that area and pumping costs have been rising.
His farm “runs the gamut” on weeds, he notes.
“I feel like we have a handle on red rice because of our rotation with soybeans,” he said. “We generally go with pre-emergence herbicides like Command and Facet early to try to help with resistant barnyardgrass and signalgrass.”
Weeds like northern jointvetch or curly indigo are also proving troublesome. “The curly indigo outsmarted us because it came up after we would normally spray for postemergence weeds.”
Herbicide drift is also becoming more of an issue. Nutt believes using surfactants can help. “We’ve gotten into a habit of using those – and not spraying when the wind is blowing toward the neighbor’s crop.
“If we do have a problem, the neighbor usually comes to us, and we work it out. It also helps if you know what’s planted in the field next to you.”
The operation relies on the Clearfield technology for as much of its rice as it can. “Where we can’t use Newpath and Beyond, it puts more pressure on the pre-emergence herbicide. So we try to get it down early and make plans accordingly.”
Nutt marks all of his problem weeds on a map during harvest so he can focus on those areas the following year.
Nutt also matches his fungicide program to the varieties he’s planting, realizing some varieties may be more susceptible to sheath blight, blast or false smut than others.
Most of his medium grain rice is marketed through local buyers such as Windmill Rice to companies like Kellogg’s. His marketing strategy is simple: when someone offers you a profit, take it.
“If you can make money, price it and don’t look back,” says Nutt. “If you have extra (he usually contracts about 150 bushels per acre of his production), then try to get a higher price for that. I like to sell my rice early and then go make a crop.”
For more on medium grain vs. long grain and short grain rice, go to http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/rice/background.aspx