Rice farmer charts aromatic course

Bruce Schultz  |  3/21/2008 12:19:19 AM

News Release Distributed 3/24/08

FENTON – A Southwest Louisiana farmer has found his niche by growing aromatic rice, and he’s eager for the release of a new LSU AgCenter variety to compete with rice imported from Thailand.

Jimmy Hoppe runs a cottage industry out of a small one-room tin building where he weighs and packages his product by hand. And he’s excited about LA2125, a line of rice being developed at the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station by Dr. Xueyan Sha.

Hoppe has grown a few acres of the rice, and he likes it. It could be released as a commercial variety as early as 2009.

Hoppe said he grew a small amount of LA2125 last year and liked the results.

“It had good yield, and the quality is so much better,” he said. “I definitely think it has potential.”

Hoppe plans to grow it again this year.

This limited production and the response of his customers to the line will provide additional information to Rice Research Station breeders to help them make a decision on the eventual release of the line.

Hoppe has been growing the variety Jasmine 85 for almost 18 years to compete with Thai Jasmine. It has been a good variety but with several problems. It is susceptible to the tendency to fall over, which means fertilizer can’t be applied all at once. Jasmine 85 also has a fuzzy, thick hull, which results in overall lower grain weight upon milling.

But so far, LA2125 is a nice, full grain, comparable to other long-grain varieties, he said.

“It’s going to make a big difference in profit to the producer,” he added.

The farmer said millers are eager to get LA2125 as soon as it’s released by the LSU AgCenter as a variety.

“There are opportunities that will just be magnified as we move forward,” he said.

Thai Jasmine makes up the biggest portion of the 350,000-400,000 metric tons of rice imported into the United States, according to Sha. He said actual Thai Jasmine cannot be grown in this country because it requires a short day length that only occurs in the United States starting in October, which is too late in the year to grow rice.

He said he’s trying to get samples of the new rice into the hands of people who might be interested in using it.

Sha said he began working on LA2125 when he started as an LSU AgCenter rice breeder at the Rice Research Station in 2000. The line is the result of a cross made in 1996 by Farman Jodari at the Rice Research Station, Sha said.

LA2125 has good resistance to blast, a rice disease, and its resistance against the rice disease sheath blight is as good as Jasmine 85. In addition, yield is better than Cypress but not as good as Cocodrie, Sha said.

“The bottom line is we look at it as much improved over Jasmine 85,” Sha said.

Hoppe isn’t worried about competition from other growers who would also plant LA2125 when it’s released as a variety. He sees an acreage increase in aromatic rice as a boost to his efforts.

“The more we get this rice out there, the more people will use it,” he said.

Hoppe sells some of his Jasmine 85 for seed planted by farmers like Kurt Unkel of Kinder.

Hoppe, like many rice farmers this year, is upbeat about the recent increases in the price of rice.

“This is the first time in 40 years I’ve planted rice and the old crop and new crop are the same price,” he said.

The 63-year-old Hoppe said he’s never seen soybeans reach $14 per bushel, but he recalled a brief spell in the late 1970s when the price reached $13 per bushel.

On the other hand, he is concerned about sharp price increases for fuel, fertilizer and herbicides.

“The risk doubles because if you don’t make a crop, you’re way out on a limb,” Hoppe said. “It could take 10 years to overcome a bad year, even with insurance.”

Hoppe grew 300 acres of rice in 2007, and he expects to have about the same amount this year, along with 375 to 400 acres of soybeans. He currently has 150 acres of wheat that was planted no-till following last year’s soybeans.

Most of his rice will be the variety CL161, and he’s planning on 60 acres aromatic rice.

Hoppe recalled he started growing Jasmine 85 in 1990 after attending a soybean meeting in St. Louis, where Texas producer Bill Dishman Jr. of Beaumont talked about the increasing amounts of Thai rice being imported into the United States to meet the demand of Southeast Asian immigrants who had moved to Texas.

Hoppe grew a few acres that first year, and he gave away small quantities of the aromatic rice for Christmas.

“By about February I had all kinds of calls,” he said.

The farmer said the aromatic venture has helped make some additional income, but he also enjoys the social aspect of one-on-one commerce.

“I like dealing with people and providing a product for them,” he said. “It’s a neat thing to be able to have personal contact with someone who’s consuming a product you raised on your farm.”

Hoppe said meeting new people gives him a chance to explain the challenges of growing rice.

“I’m not just selling to the mill; I’m actually going to the customer,” he said.

While he was talking about his specialty rice, a customer showed up. Tom Lohman of Baton Rouge was passing through the area and stopped to restock on rice. Hoppe bagged up the rice and sewed shut the 5- and 1-pound cloth sacks as Lohman watched.

“He has met me on the side of the Interstate to make delivery,” Lohman said. “I usually give a lot of the rice away in gift baskets.”

Hoppe said another aromatic rice variety, Dellmati, developed at the Rice Research Station, can compete with Basmati rice imported from India. He grew Dellmati for a few years, and he hopes to plant more in the future. Basmati has the distinct characteristic of doubling in length when cooked and not increasing in width.

“It looks like broken spaghetti,” Hoppe explained.

Hoppe said cooking aromatic rice is flexible. For fluffier rice, cook it with less water, while adding water makes for stickier rice.

Hoppe recently bought a small mill that can process 1,000 pounds of rice in an hour. He expects having that machinery will attract even more customers who will be interested in seeing their rice milled on demand. It will be especially suited for school tours, he said.

Currently, he gives tours of his farm to home-schooled students during the spring and at harvest time.

He recently had a Texas family come to pick up a pallet of rice to ship to a mission in the African nation of Swaziland.

Hoppe has shipped his rice to Europe, Africa, Canada and all over the United States, including Alaska. He also has worked closely with Rice Research Station researchers for many years. He has provided space for research plots on his farm since 1995.

“These plots typically consist of tests of advanced breeding lines as well as disease- and weed-control research,” said Dr. Steve Linscombe, LSU AgCenter rice breeder and director of its Southwest Louisiana region, which includes the Rice Research Station.

The annual Southwest Louisiana Rice Field Day includes a stop at Hoppe’s farm.

LSU AgCenter county agent Eddie Eskew said Hoppe’s emphasis on quality is obvious.

“He’s an outstanding farmer who always relied on research-based information,” Eskew said.

Eskew said Hoppe’s farm is included in the annual LSU AgCenter rice and soybean field days.

“If we need something, he’s willing to help,” Eskew said.

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Writer: Bruce Schultz at (337) 788-8821 or bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu

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