Making inroads into the imported jasmine market proves challenging for growers and millers.
By Vicky Boyd
The United States imports about 400,000 metric tons of jasmine rice annually, a figure that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Fred Zaunbrecher. As a Louisiana producer who has grown the aromatic long-grain for several years, he is passionate about expanding its domestic consumption.
“I’m just anxious to get something that will slow down our imports,” says Zaunbrecher, who farms with his brothers Phillip, Paul and Bill near Duson.
He’s not alone, either. A number of other growers and millers have been trying to crack the tough jasmine market for decades with limited success. And they say they’ll continue with the goal of making at least a dent in imports.
Growers and millers of the aromatic specialty rice point to the improved varieties being developed by domestic breeding programs as one reason for their optimism.
In 2009, the Louisiana State University AgCenter program released Jazzman I as a replacement for Jasmine 85. Two years later, the AgCenter followed with the improved Jazzman II. Although Jazzman II had lower yields than its predecessor, it had improved aroma that also was more stable and slightly better grain quality.
New Clearfield jasmine variety
This season, Horizon Ag released CLJ01 to growers for seed production and limited commercial production. It was developed by former LSU AgCenter breeder Dr. Steve Linscombe and is based on the AgCenter’s Jazzman II long-grain aromatic.
The new variety has the added benefit of being part of the Clearfield system, which allows growers to apply Newpath herbicide over the top to control weeds, including red rice and weedy rice, says Horizon Ag general manager Tim Walker.
CLJ01 also has better yield potential than Jazzman II. Although the CLJ01 aroma is slightly less than Jazzman II, it is still comparable to imported jasmine, Linscombe says.
“The other thing about this rice (CLJ01) is it has extremely good grain appearance and very, very low chalk,” he says, adding the new release has even lower chalk than Cypress, an old variety coveted for grain quality. The kernel length of the new release averages 6.8 millimeters, which also is important, Linscombe says.
“I think from a quality standpoint, which is extremely critical, this is going to fit the bill,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy, but I think we need to do it in baby steps.
Many growers and millers over the years have learned the nuances of how to manage the aromatic varieties in the field and how to handle them at the drier and mill to maintain their fragrance.
Still, specialty aromatic rices — which include Jasmine and basmati-types — comprise only about 1 percent of the overall U.S. rice production.
Much of the jasmine imported into the United States is purchased by Southeast Asian immigrants or Asian Americans who grew up eating rice at least three times per day, says Mike Martin, co-owner of Martin Rice Co. in Bernie, Missouri. They don’t buy it in 1- or 2-pound bags but instead in 25-plus pound sacks. As a result, most of the jasmine he sells is in 50-pound sacks.
Over the roughly 18 years he has been growing jasmine, Martin says he has had Thai immigrants now living in the United States visit the family farm.
“‘This takes me back to my childhood and running through the farms as a child,’” Martin says they told him. “They may want to buy something that says ‘product of Thailand’ because it reminds them of home.”
Some of the other marketing challenges are based on perception, he says.
“It’s pretty hard to change in the consumer’s mind,” he says. “To be jasmine, they think it has to come from Thailand. So we have to go back to basic marketing and figure out how do we differentiate ourselves? That’s the tough hurdle to jump. It’s a battle we’ll continue to fight.”
He likens it to his experiences with Arborio rice. Although his family could produce the specialty rice that independent third parties judged to be as good or better than Italian product, he says buyers and consumers still believed that only Italy can produce quality Arborio.
The first step in swaying traditional jasmine consumers is to have them try U.S.-grown jasmine, Martin says.
With lower costs of production in Southeast Asia, imported jasmine frequently comes in at bargain prices. To capture even part of the market, he says U.S. producers will have to provide consumers more value — in the form of better quality and food safety — for their dollar.
Taking baby steps
Jimmy Hoppe, a Fenton, Louisiana, producer who has been growing and packaging jasmine-type varieties since the 1980s, has seen the quality of university aromatic varietal releases improve over time. With the proper growing practices and drying programs, U.S.-grown jasmine is very similar to that of imports, he says.
“With the development of Jazzman II, certainly we have an opportunity not only here,” says Hoppe, referring to the variety released by the Louisiana State University AgCenter. “Arkansas is working on one, and California is working on a variety that has jasmine characteristics. It’s a wide-open market, but we have to make some inroads.”
As an example, he cites the success of Jazzmen Rice, a New Orleans company that brands and markets LSU-developed Jazzman varieties.
Hoppe says he remains upbeat, especially with changing tastes as the fourth, fifth and sixth generations of original Southeast Asian immigrants now are entering the buying sector.
“With these generations as we get further away from their origin, I think we have an opportunity to make more of an impact,” he says. “My little business continues to grow, and I just think there’s an opportunity for it to grow a lot bigger.
But it takes time and money. In the last five years, the market has continued to grow. I continue to move rice, and there are more and more people who get it.”
The evolution won’t happen overnight, either. Martin says he’d be happy if the U.S. industry could take away even 100,000 metric tons from the imported jasmine market.
Zaunbrecher, who plans to plant the new Clearfield jasmine this season, says the industry also has to continue to educate consumers.
“I think the critical thing for us is to put the whole story behind the U.S. farmers — it’s U.S. grown and connects us to the U.S. farmer,” he says.