• By Vicky Boyd,
Like much of America, the University of Arkansas’ Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center has experienced COVID-related supply chain disruptions, which shut down machine shop construction for six weeks this spring.
The project appears back on track, and builder Nabholz Construction Corp. has done a great job dealing with the supply-chain issues, said NERREC director Tim Burcham.
The facility is located on Highway 1 near Harrisburg, Arkansas.
Despite the temporary setbacks, Burcham said he feels lucky because the center is already hosting a number of rice research projects this season. Just six months ago, it didn’t even have a tractor on site.
“We feel very fortunate and very blessed to be at this juncture,” Burcham said. “I’ve done public presentations, and I’ve used the ‘just-in-time’ example many, many times, and it’s been that way here.”
In fact, center managers missed the early rice planting window because they didn’t have any equipment during that optimum rice planting window in April.
Flash forward to early August, and the center has a full 32-acre reservoir, Arkansas Rice Performance Trials plots, variety-by-nitrogen trials, weed control trials, cover crop trials, row rice trials and U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service research plots, to name a few.
Integrated irrigation system
The reservoir is part of an integrated irrigation system designed by UA associate professor and irrigation/water management engineer Chris Henry and irrigation educator Mike Hamilton. A pump on the L’Anguille River fills the reservoir during periods of high flow. That same pump also can provide river water directly to the farm.
Just to the south of the reservoir, a planned well — which will provide groundwater as a back-up water source — is currently out for bid.
Diesel pumps on the river as well as the reservoir are being converted to 3-phase electric variable frequency drive motors. They also are controlled by PumpTrakr hardware and software that allows NERREC staff to remotely monitor and control the pumps.
Between underground pipes and relift pumps, water can be transferred around the entire research farm.
“We have capacity in the system to move water from the three water sources simultaneously and deliver it to multiple fields.,” Burcham said. “With three water sources and outlets in 21 fields, we are trying to get a handle on which fields can be watered simultaneously while maintaining the Pipe Planner design parameters. Some of that is trial and error, and we hope to have a better handle on that capacity going into next year’s production.
“For us to get through the season with just the surface water has been a test of management skills.”
Construction of the machine shop is moving along after supply chain disruptions shut it down earlier this spring for six weeks. The facility includes 4,500 square-feet of interior space as well as 6,000 square feet of covered space for equipment storage and 1,500 square feet for sprayer clean-out and chemical mixing. In addition, the interior space will feature an office, a break room, a lockable tool room and a combination bathroom-shower facility.
Burcham originally had hoped the facility would be completed by the start of planting season. The new schedule calls for completion in late October or early November.
The main building
Burcham continues to work with members of the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board and University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture leadership to fully develop the plan for the 26,000-square-foot main building. Based on conceptual plans, it will house six laboratories, 12 offices and a public section (exhibition hall and grade-school educational space).
Although the university has conceptual drawings of the building, an architectural firm will need to be selected through a state-approved process. From bid to design approval could take eight months to a year.
Based on that timeline, Burcham said he hopes to move forward with main building construction in 2023 or 2024.
The research center is being developed as a public/private partnership. Before COVID shut down in-person functions, Burcham was meeting with would-be supporters. And he hopes to return to that shortly.
Already, his efforts have paid dividends. In April, Greenway Equipment donated $2 million to the center. Of that, $1 million will be for agricultural equipment at the station, and $1 million will go toward construction of the NERREC exhibition hall, which will be a community resource.
In addition to Greenway, several other companies have already given more than $79,000 in in-kind and cash contributions. Among those are McCrometer Inc., which donated two flow meters for the relift, and Seametrics Inc., which provided two flow meters for the well and the northeast booster pump, as well as10 portable flow meters to measure irrigation water pumped into individual fields.