Sunday, September 19, 2021

Public/private partnership

Work continues on University of Arkansas’ NERREC, with trials planned for 2021.

• By Vicky Boyd,
Editor •

tim burcham
Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center Director Tim Burcham shows off the survey stakes for the new machine shop — photo courtesy University of Arkansas

If construction goes according to schedule, the University of Arkansas’ Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center near Harrisburg will begin hosting a limited number of field trials and experiments in 2021.

Recently, ground was broken on a machinery shop that will include 4,300 square-feet of interior space as well as 5,250 square feet of covered space for equipment storage and 1,700 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.

“We want the shop to be in place and hopefully the equipment in place so we can have rice production and research this coming season – that’s our hope,” said NERREC Director Tim Burcham. “The irrigation system should be ready to go for spring 2021 crops and we should have necessary agricultural equipment available. What we won’t have is the office building, exhibition hall and educational classroom.”

Already, UArk Extension rice agronomist Jarrod Hardke plans to have Arkansas Rice Production Trials and commercial rice trials at NERREC next season. On a 30-acre field where the deepest cuts were made during land leveling, UArk and Arkansas State University researchers will conduct studies with various cover crop mixes to restore soil health. Another 30-acre field will be split into equal sections to measure water use of row rice versus conventional flooded rice.

Redoubling educational efforts

The conceptual 26,000-square-foot main building to which Burcham referred will house six laboratories, 12 offices and a public section (exhibition hall and grade-school educational space). Unlike the university’s other research facilities, a portion of the NERREC will be devoted to educational purposes, Burcham said.

“This station is going to be somewhat different than traditional stations,” he said. “That’s not to say we don’t do education programs at our other stations, but we’re going to be intentionally designing this facility to provide unique educational opportunities for grade-school children as well as our traditional Extension outreach.”

Work is moving forward

This past season, dirt over much of the 600-acre NERREC was moved to level fields and construct a 32-acre reservoir, new drainage systems and new irrigation distribution systems. A well on the south side was just completed and will provide up to 1,700-2,000 gallons per minute. In addition, the farm can pump from the adjacent L’Anguille River.

Having access to three water sources will allow researchers to study, for example, how cold water from groundwater affects rice growth. It also will allow the farm to make more efficient use of natural resources, Burcham said.

A public-private partnership

The university purchased the 600 acres of Poinsett County land near Harrisburg in mid-2018. The location, next door to RiceTec, was intentionally chosen because of its high visibility along Arkansas Highway 1 as well as its soil types unique to the region. More than 60% of the state’s rice is grown in the northeast.

“Our goal from the onset is certainly to be a research station, and keep in mind also that this is the only University of Arkansas station on these Henry silt loams and Calloway silt loams,” Burcham said. “Now we’ll be able to grow these (rice) varieties on these white silt loam soils that are very predominate in our rice-producing counties.”

UArk’s Northeast Research and Extension Center near Keiser —only about 33 miles to the east as the crow flies — is predominately Sharkey clay.

Funding for the land purchase came from a $4 million gift from the Arkansas Rice Research Promotion Board, according to a 2018 university news release. Because the facility is a public-private partnership, Burcham said the university is looking to private industry to help underwrite part of it. Actual ground breaking on the main building will depend on private fund-raising efforts, which are ongoing.

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