Linda Benedict | 9/21/2011 8:19:08 PM
If you drive by a field of Jazzman rice, its pleasant, nutty aroma is unmistakable. For farmers, the pleasant fragrance is the smell of money.
The LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station developed Jazzman rice varieties to compete with Thai Jasmine.
Of the 600,000 tons of rice imported into the United States annually, more than 60 percent is Thai Jasmine. The Far Eastern variety can only be grown in regions of the world with short day lengths, such as Thailand, something not found in Louisiana’s growing season.
But breeding work by Xueyan Sha at the Rice Research Station has led to varieties of rice with taste and smell similar to Jasmine. Sha’s work first produced Jazzman in 2009, then an improved version, Jazzman-2, came last year. Sha is now working on a Clearfield version of Jazzman.
Bobby Hanks, chief executive officer of Louisiana Rice Mill, said Jazzman-2 is proving to be a solid competitor to Thai Jasmine. “There’s a real good chance the U.S. Jazzman could get a good share of that market.”
Hanks said the 2011 Jazzman crop totals more than 11,000 acres in Louisiana, and farmers will get a premium for the aromatic rice. Louisiana Rice Mill contracted with farmers to grow Jazzman-2 for either a flat price or a price of $5 a barrel more than the price for regular long grain rice.
It is critical that that this year’s crop do well to produce enough rice to make it widely available, he said. “We need for them to do well this year yield-wise.”
Louisiana Rice Mill supplies Jazzmen Rice LLC with its supply of Jazzman.
Andrew Wong of the Jazzmen Rice Company said U.S. Jazzman competes with Thai Jasmine in countries where importing U.S. rice is cheaper than importing Thai rice. The U.S. rice has been exported to Canada and France, he said.
Wong’s company, which sells Jazzman rice under the Jazzmen brand, has widespread distribution on the U.S. West Coast. “We will be trying soon to get into the East Coast,” he said. The company participates in culinary trade shows and has attracted the attention of top chefs, including John Besh, of New Orleans.
Jazzmen rice is sold in groceries, and institutional food distributors sell it to restaurants. The company has obtained rights to use the image of the late Louis Armstrong in its trademark. “We spend a lot of money on branding, promoting and marketing it,” Wong said.
Falcon Rice Mill of Crowley also sells the Jazzman rice variety.
“We’re excited about it,” said Robert Trahan, of Falcon. “We’ve seen increased demand every year. I think we finally have a product that is close to the aromatics.”
Last year the company increased its acreage by 20 percent, and this year the acreage will double. “We’ve sold everything we contract,” Trahan said. “We probably could squeeze out more sales, but we only have so much room for storage.”
To meet increased demand, Doug and Jerry Foreman, of Lafayette Parish, contracted to grow rice for Falcon this year. Farmer Jimmy Hoppe of Fenton has grown aromatic rice for Falcon for several years.
Hoppe said his sales of Jazzman have increased his rice sales dramatically. “Actually my sales have about doubled, and I’ve probably picked up a third more customers,” he said.
Hoppe increased his acreage of the aromatic rice this year by a third to meet the demand. He also said his farm is now represented by a food service company that supplies specialty stores and groceries along the I-10 corridor.
Hoppe also sells directly to customers who visit his farm. “It becomes not only a sale, but actually an opportunity for me to share what goes on at the farm.”
He said it didn’t surprise him to hear from a returning customer that they prefer his rice to Thai Jasmine. Hoppe said he explained to the customer that Thai Jasmine is often blended with non-aromatic, long-grain rice.
Kurt Unkel, of Kinder, is a small grower. This year he has 25 acres of Jazzman, and he sells in niche markets, including farmers markets in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. His rice also is available in local food stores and on the Internet.
Last year, Unkel’s field was infested with red rice, resulting in a mix of domestic rice and the unwanted plant. But he chose to sell the rice anyway, even pointing out the red rice on the packaging labels.
He said buyers of his rice liked the red rice, and they like the new Jazzman. “My customers like it. I work for them.”
(This article was published in the summer 2011 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)