Despite coronavirus restrictions, rice breeding programs continue albeit with a few changes.
• By Vicky Boyd,
In mid-March, University of Arkansas rice breeder Xueyan Sha decided only a few days before his scheduled trip to the university’s Puerto Rican winter nursery to cancel it because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Although the move meant he wouldn’t be able to make selections of some of his breeding lines, Sha says in hindsight he was glad he did. Several days later, which would have coincided with his trip, Puerto Rico placed a 14-day quarantine on all arriving travelers.
“I was supposed to be there right now,” he said March 26. “Because of all of the restrictions, not only here in Arkansas but there, I became concerned and decided not to travel. With the winter nursery, we’ll definitely see a little impact, but it won’t be huge. Even though we’re not traveling, we have collaborators affiliated with the University of Puerto Rico. They’ll be able to help us with the harvest.”
Sha last traveled to Puerto Rico in early February and made notes that he planned to pass along to collaborators.
Winter rice nurseries
Mid-South rice breeding programs depend on the Lajas, Puerto Rico, nursery operated by the University of Puerto Rico to produce another generation of rice at a time when winter weather envelopes their local fields. They also rely on the facility for seed increase. University of Arkansas, for example, obtains about 1,000 pounds of seed annually from Puerto Rico.
Each university program staggers their planting and harvest calendar so they don’t overwhelm staff at the Puerto Rico facility.
The California Rice Experiment Station, on the other hand, has its own nursery on the island of Kauai for producing one or even two generations during the winter.
Because of schedules, Louisiana State University AgCenter rice breeder Adam Famoso traveled to Puerto Rico March 14, just ahead of Louisiana and Puerto Rico travel restrictions. He spent two days on the island, obtained what he needed and left a day early because of talk of pending restrictions.
“We harvested all of our F2 early generation material in February and got all of that.” Famoso says. “What we had left were our seed increases and purification of new varieties. If we weren’t able to come down (to Puerto Rico in March), it would have delayed things one to two years.”
Among the varieties in the pipeline nearing release are a conventional long grain as well as a third Provisia long-grain variety.
Material from Puerto Rico was planted in seed increase fields at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Experiment Station near Crowley within 10 days of Famoso’s return in March. Variety trials planned for off-station sites were delayed temporarily until the university developed coronavirus protocols to keep employees safe.
“We pretty much can work independently,” he says. “We have one person on the planter and one person inside the tractor.”
Workers also travel to the field in separate vehicles that are disinfected regularly.
During a typical season, Famoso says he likes to have four off-station trials in South Louisiana, one in Central Louisiana and two in North Louisiana. Three off-station trials in the south part of the state already are in the ground, and near-ideal conditions have promoted strong germination. The breeding program plants most of their trials, and the agronomy project assists with managing one to two locations.
If researchers from the Rice Research Station are not able to travel to the northern parts of the state, Famoso says he can overnight the seed to cooperators at other LSU AgCenters and have them plant the trials.
“It’s pretty much been day by day and week by week and doing as much as we can as far as restrictions and what we can handle,” he says. “All staff have been excellent and gone above and beyond — we’ve been fortunate so far.”
Sha, who has traveled to Puerto Rico for years, knows all too well the challenges of the island territory — like hurricanes and earthquakes. As a result, he’s learned not to put all of his eggs in one basket.
“I don’t want everything in Puerto Rico in case a disaster happens,” he says. “Fortunately, I maintain the material in two places — half in Puerto Rico and half in the greenhouses in Stuttgart.”
In late March and early April, field conditions at the Rice Research and Extension Center near Stuttgart were too wet to begin planting rice lines for breeding and evaluation. Field station employees who could work remotely from home were doing so.
“But like my breeding program, we can do very little from home,” Sha says.
As conditions dry, he says he anticipates his crew will be able to work in the fields. Maintaining 6 feet of social distancing won’t be an issue because of the large space devoted to breeding at the research station. Employees who may have ridden together in all-terrain vehicles to field plots in the past will drive individually. Each morning before field work, they also will sanitize
vehicle touch points, such as steering wheels and handles, with approved disinfectants.
Mississippi State University rice breeder Ed Redoña planted early generation material in Puerto Rico in early December 2019 and was scheduled to return in early April to make selections and help with harvest. But those plans fell through due to coronavirus-related restrictions.
“In fact, I was supposed to have been there since last week to do panicle and line selection work but, due to travel restrictions at both the university and state levels, I could not go,” he said April 7. “However, as a backup plan, the research station manager there agreed to get as many samples of our materials as possible to send back to Stoneville in a couple of weeks or so. I was not able to personally do the selection work there at this particular generation or stage of our breeding materials, which would have been ideal. But we will still be able to preserve our materials — albeit one generation older — for planting and then selection work later this summer in Stoneville.”
If the plan goes as hoped, Redoña says he doesn’t foresee a delay because all of the materials planted in Puerto Rico this year are in the early stages of the breeding cycle. He does have promising lines nearing release, but seed increase for those had already been planned at the Delta Research and Extension Center near Stoneville before the coronavirus outbreak.
Christian De Guzman, rice breeder at Southeast Missouri State University, had planned to travel to the Puerto Rican facility in late March to make early generation selections and harvest varieties. With SEMO halting all business travel earlier that month, he had to change plans.
Instead, De Guzman says Anthony Rivera, who oversees the winter nursery, and his staff planned to harvest the rice lines and ship the seed to Missouri. Even if they’re delayed, De Guzman doesn’t anticipate it affecting development and release of varieties in the pipeline.
SEMO also has limited access to university facilities. As an essential employee, De Guzman says he can continue to work on his program remotely and on a limited basis at the outdoor facilities.
“We take social distancing seriously and take precautions by wearing masks and gloves if needed,” he says.
California Rice Experiment Station director of plant breeding “Butz” Andaya visited the Hawaii winter nursery, made selections and flew back early before March 20 when they were starting to close the island, says station director Kent McKenzie. Breeder Theresa De Leon and breeding assistants originally scheduled to travel after Andaya canceled their plans, and harvest was left to the Hawaiian cooperator.
The seed was subsequently inspected by Hawaiian agricultural officials as it left Kauai and by Butte County, California, officials as it arrived at the station. It has been processed for nursery planting.
The research station continues to operate at full capacity, implementing recommended safeguards for agriculture and agricultural workers, McKenzie says. The station also is considered part of an “essential industry,” according to state and federal definitions.