Sustainability, identity preservation keys to rice future

Sustainability is a phrase that seems to have come back into vogue with marketers trying to sell to millennials who seem to be more environmentally conscientious than members of previous generations.

But sustainability is more than just another marketing term for crop input providers such as Tim Walker, the general manager of Horizon Ag and a former agronomist and rice breeder with Mississippi State University.

“We talk a lot about sustainability in agriculture, especially in the rice industry,” says Dr. Walker. “One of the concerns of my company, and I think probably many others, is making sure that we maintain profitability because without profitability, sustainability becomes very difficult.”

Speaking at Horizon Ag’ Louisiana Field Day on the Christian Richard Farm in Kaplan, La., Dr. Walker said Horizon Ag is in the process of introducing multiple new rice varieties in 2016 and 2017 that it believes will help producers be more sustainable. Those will include CL 153 and CL 172 in 2017 and CL 163, which had a limited introduction in 2016

“These varieties have excellent yield potential, yield potential that is better than a lot of our industry standards are offering today,” he said. “They also have a much improved disease package.”

Dr. Walker said blast disease has become an increasing concern, “especially in areas like south Louisiana where the pressure is usually pretty extensive. These varieties will allow you to maintain yield potential without the threat of losing yield, which is often a substantial yield loss in the case of blast.”

Better sleep with resistance

The blast resistance offered by CL153 and CL172, and the overall stable, high yield potential of the three new Clearfield lines will help farmers “not only sleep well at night, but hopefully realize profits from every acre they grow,” said Walker.

Markets are another component of sustainability, he said.

“Especially in the southern United States, more than 50 percent of our rice leaves the country, destined for export market,” he noted. “We’ve had declining export markets in recent years, and a lot of the reason for the decline is because of the quality of the rice we grow has become less over the years.

“We’re very fortunate to have new offerings that will raise the bar for quality back to the standard that was set some 20 to 30 years ago by the U.S. rice industry. We’ve been working with our export customers, we’ve been working with our domestic mills and end users to make sure these varieties are profitable for the growers but also profitable for the industry.”

That’s because there are markets that desire the kind of quality, he says, “All of these things go together to help strengthen our industry so that we can continue to be sustainable.”

Cooking quality is a characteristic that can be difficult to obtain objective measurements on, Dr. Walker said. “What we have done is taken advantage of opportunities to meet with people from other countries”

Cooking demonstrations

During the U.S. Rice Producers Association’s Rice Market and Technology Conference in Houston earlier this summer, Horizon Ag representatives were able to cook rice for attendees from Nicaragua.

“The Nicaraguans used to be very important purchasers of our rice to the tune of 100,000 metric tons eight or 10 years ago,” he said. “Unfortunately, over the last few years, we have not moved nearly that much rice to the country. It actually dipped below 1,000 metric tons during that period.

“The rice we cooked for them, especially the Clearfield 172, was rice that really piqued their interest, and they believe it has potential to come back into their country. That’s very good news for the U.S. rice farmer.”

The Horizon Ag representatives did another cooking demonstration for a broader range of attendees, including those from Ecuador, Peru Costa Rica, Columbia, Nicaragua and the United States. Following the demonstration, many of the participants filled out evaluations of the varieties they cooked.

“We have that feedback, and we will use that to go back to our breeding partners and to potential exports, letting them know that here’s rice that people have graded favorably or they have indicated it’s not going to fit in their market.”

New technology needed

Now that Clearfield rice has been in the market for 12 to 14 years growers are beginning to see the need for a new weed control technology that can help them overcome the resistance problems that are beginning to occur in southern rice fields.

“We’re very fortunate that BASF has partnered with LSU to develop and bring to market a new tool called Provisia rice,” Dr. Walker noted. “Because of the previous partnership we’ve had with BASF on Clearfield rice, we hope to have an opportunity to help bring Provisia to market. In the near-term that’s something we’re excited about.”

Dr. Walker said farmers need to begin treating rice as more than a commodity that’s sold in bulk to an anonymous buyer. “We do produce a food. Rice typically is not ground up, it’s not processed,” he said. “And it’s a small crop. We’re talking about a 7.5-million-acre crop in the South in a really good year. So we can’t treat it like a commodity. It is a food, and we have to treat it like that.

“We’re going to have to do more identity preservation, especially for these markets that are specific in what they’re looking for. I think that will be a huge part of us going forward and us being successful is being able to demonstrate to the world that we can produce what our customers want and produce it in a way that allow our growers to be profitable.”

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