Trials and triumphs

A half century of technology and policy changes have helped Arkansas grow to become the nation’s top rice producer.

By Mary Hightower

Rice Farming 50th anniversaryIn 1967, the world saw the first heart transplant, “The Graduate” was No. 1 at the box office and the St. Louis Cardinals topped the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox in the World Series.

It was also a time when rice harvest in Arkansas was closer to Halloween than Independence Day, rice acres and variety choices were fewer, and much of what the state grew was exported.

Fifty years later, Arkansas is the nation’s leading rice grower, its 1.5 million
acres bearing more than half of all the rice produced in the United States.

Chuck Wilson, director of the Northeast Research and Extension Center for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, says changes in technology and farm policy helped grow the rice industry in the Natural State.

“We’ve gone from acreage allotments to doing away with them,” Wilson says. “That’s allowed the number of acres to expand in Arkansas from less than a half-million to almost 1.75 million in some years. It’s also allowed the acreage to be more flexible.”

The growth in rice acres coincided with an increase in farm size, which in turn has prompted producers to look for ways to manage a greater number of acres. New technologies over the past 50 years, such as the introduction of propanil as a landmark electronic devices, such as iPads and drones, continue to change the face of rice farming.

harvest at Ahrent Brothers

Harvest on the Ahrent Brothers Farms near Corning, Ark., in 1962—photo courtesy Mark and Michael Ahrent

“We weren’t using polypipe until 20 years ago. Now most everyone is using it to some extent. It has made us much more efficient in irrigation,” Wilson says.

“We’ve got one farmer who has a drone and uses it on a regular basis to check water levels.” If there’s a leak, “he has the ability to fly that drone and pinpoint the leak rather than walking each levee to find it.

“Precision ag is slowly taking hold. Most everyone has yield monitors, and some farmers are using variable-rate fertilizer technology. They’re using image analysis whether it’s from satellite images or aerial photography or handheld ‘Greenseeker’ tools. It’s a big transition from where we were 50 years ago. As we become bigger, we have to do things differently.”

The rice plants, too, are different than they were 50 years ago. Wilson says the tall varieties, such as Starbonnet, that were prone to lodging and disease have been replaced by varieties that are shorter, earlier maturing plants and with better disease resistance.

“The introduction of hybrids and herbicide-resistant technology (i.e., Clearfield rice) have influenced our variety decisions as well,” he says.

Keith Glover, chief executive of Producers Rice Mill in Stuttgart, Ark., says the variety improvements are significant.

“In the early ’80s, farmers thought they had it good with 100 bushels per acre,” Glover says. “Today they’re yielding 200 in many cases. A lot of farmers are getting that on certain fields.”

Bigger appetite for rice

Another huge change in the past five decades is the rise in the amount of rice eaten in the United States, according to both Glover and Carl Brothers, Riceland Foods’ senior vice president and chief operating officer.

When it comes to how the rice industry has evolved in those past five decades, “I’ve been here 52 years, and I’ve seen most of it,” Brothers says. “My No. 1 (change) is the increase in domestic consumption. Domestic consumption has more than doubled since 1980.”

Riceland Corning

The Corning Arkansas Riceland Foods facility in 1959. At the time, it had a capacity of 1.49 million bushels and employed 10 people—photo courtesy Mark and Michael Ahrent

Brothers attributes a large share of that growth to “finding rice in more restaurants throughout America and the influx of different ethnic influences” in food choices.

“Rice is being used in a lot more products. It’s an ingredient in snack foods, granola bars, cereals,” Glover says. “Rice is gluten free and that’s made it popular in various foods because of that.

“We have a lot more sold domestically than we did 40-50 years ago. Forty to 50 years ago, 60 percent had to be exported. Today, the export versus domestic percentages are reversed with approximately 60 percent of our production now consumed here in the United States.”

Brothers says more U.S. rice is appearing on the plates of neighbors in the western hemisphere, with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Columbia Free Trade agreement opening markets in Mexico, Central and South America.

Although global rice trade has increased almost fourfold, “the U.S. hasn’t participated much,” he says, adding that the U.S. share of world rice trade had declined from 25 percent in 1980 to about 8 percent in 2015. And the world rice market is only becoming more competitive.

“The quality of rice coming out of Asia is becoming more of a challenge to the U.S.,” Brothers says. “Another big story for me was that India came out of nowhere in the last 10 years and is expected to be the No. 1 exporter in the world, replacing Thailand.”

Francis Williams

Francis Williams served as director of what was then called the Rice Branch of the Agricultural Experiment Station from 1953-1988. The facility
in Stuttgart, Ark., has since been renamed the Rice Research and Extension Center.

Research counts

Brothers and Wilson both note that over the past five decades, an increase in dollars going to rice research has enabled farmers in Arkansas and other rice-producing states to become more efficient and competitive in global markets.

“The research money available to look at rice and improve management and breeding has increased substantially,” Wilson says. “That has had a significant role” in industry changes in the last five decades.

“We need to be sure we use that (research) money” wisely, Brothers says.

Mary Hightower is director of communication services with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. She may be reached at mhightower@uaex.edu.