By 1966, rice was here to stay

Early rice pioneers had to overcome doubting lenders and agronomic challenges to pave the way for today’s successful Mississippi rice industry.

By Bobby R. Golden and Jason A. Bond

Rice Farming 50th anniversaryFifty years ago in 1966 marked the 18th year of farm-scale rice production in Mississippi since the first crop was established in 1948 near Greenville.

During the  1960s, cotton was king in the Mississippi Delta, but rice was gaining traction as a profitable crop and was here to stay.

Since that time, numerous changes have occurred in rice production, management and marketing. We hope to provide a small glimpse into the changes that have shaped the landscape of rice production in Mississippi.

This article would have been extraordinarily difficult to write were it not for two books that detail and preserve the history of rice production in the state: “Rice in Mississippi” (1987) by Rex Kimbriel and “Rice in the Mississippi Delta” (2005) by James E. Smith. These are two great reads for anyone interested in rice production and learning more about the crop’s history in the state.
Rex Kimbriel

Rex Kimbriel, pictured here in a late 1950s photo, has been credited with being the first commercial rice producer in Mississippi. The MSU long-grain variety, Rex, is named after the pioneering Kimbriel.

Early pioneers

Taking a look back, the first acknowledgment should be to the rice farmers. Many of the patriarchs of influential Mississippi rice-growing families were in their heyday approximately 50 years ago. Most of the pioneers faced difficult challenges establishing their crops with varieties not suited for Mississippi Delta “Buckshot soils” and uncooperative bankers who were hesitant to loan money on a then-unproven crop.

These men fought the obstacles and persisted when many in the Mississippi Delta thought rice would never endure as a viable crop. Nevertheless, many of the rice farms started by these pioneers willing to risk everything are still successful today and are as second- or third-generation family farms. We in the rice industry owe a great debt of gratitude to these visionaries for without them, Mississippi rice would look vastly different today.

Many aspects of production have evolved over the past 50 years and have shaped Mississippi rice culture into what we recognize today. Two of the more notable changes were the adoption of the direct-seeded, delayed-flood production method and precision-graded straight-levee rice fields.

These adaptations have altered every other input in the modern rice production system. Prior to the late 1970s, most rice acres were sown by aircraft.

But with changes in machinery by the mid-1980s, the tide had turned to drill-seeded rice. With today’s precision-guided tractors and air drills, more than 90 percent of Mississippi rice acreage is drill-seeded.

The advent of precision landforming practices during the early 1980s influenced Mississippi rice production tremendously, allowing for straight-levee rice fields that improve water management and harvest logistics. The majority of Mississippi rice today is produced using the precision-graded straight-levee system.

Varietal improvements

Mike Litton

Mike Litton, a pioneering grower in Bolivar County, Miss., checks the filling of one of his grain pits.

Aside from seeding method and land forming, varietal improvement and new advances in crop protection chemistry have positively influenced rice yields in Mississippi. Although many varieties have come and gone over the past 50 years, a few have been extremely popular in Mississippi.

Chronologically, Mississippi producers have preferred Starbonnet, Lemont, Newbonnet, Cocodrie and Rex.

The release of Rex marked the first time a Mississippi-developed variety garnered the majority of conventional rice acreage.

The 2000s brought both hybrid and Clearfield technologies to varieties that since commercialization, have garnered the most of the rice acreage.

Many of today’s rice herbicides were developed within the past 50 years, the most notable being Facet, Command, Regiment, Newpath and Clincher. The release of Agrotain brought a useful tool to manage nitrogen fertilizer loss on difficult-to-flood fields and is used on nearly all preflood urea applications today. One would not consider growing a rice crop without these chemistries.

Research and Extension growth

Dr. Donald H. Bowman

Dr. Donald H. Bowman was the rice specialist based at Mississippi State University’s Delta
Branch Experiment Station in Stoneville. His position was described in a 1968 issue of Rice Farming magazine as a ‘one-man rice station.’

In 1958, the Mississippi Legislature appropriated funds for a separate and formal rice project to be established. With the appointment of Dr. H. Rouse Caffey, full-time rice research was initiated at the Mississippi State University’s Delta Research and Extension Center (DREC) in Stoneville.

Since Caffey’s initial appointment, the DREC has employed 16 research scientists with rice responsibility over the years.

Output from each of these individuals programs has helped increase state average rice yields to 166 bushels (75 hundredweight) per acre from 101 bushels (45.5 cwt) per acre over the past 50 years. On the Extension side, the DREC has housed eight rice specialists who have all led efforts to extend knowledge gained through experimentation to the rice producer.

The research and Extension effort has increased over the years and could not be accomplished without the financial support and direction from the Mississippi Rice Promotion Board. Founded in 1981, the board consists of 12 appointed individuals who help determine allocation of checkoff dollars.

To all that have come before, your contributions have made rice production in Mississippi what it is today, and we hope the next 50 years will advance our industry as far as we have over the last half century.

Dr. Bobby Golden is Mississippi State University Extension/research rice specialist based at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss. He may be reached at bgolden@drec.msstate.edu. Dr. Jason Bond is MSU Extension/research weed specialist, also based at the DREC. He may be reached at jbond@drec.msstate.edu.