While the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico may be widely known for its sandy beaches, rum distilleries and colonial charisma, few may know of its immeasurable value to the Louisiana rice industry, particularly within the realm of rice variety development.
LSU AgCenter rice breeder Adam Famoso touts the use of the facility at the Lajas Experiment Station, which is part of the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, as a major time-saving component of the variety development program. He said growing rice for seed production there can save two to three years in the release of a new variety as compared to seed production on domestic soil alone.
“The Puerto Rico research station knocks off years of time toward the release of a new variety,” Famoso said. “Almost every variety goes through Puerto Rico.”
The recently released variety PVL03 owes its rapid release to the Puerto Rico research station, he said. Seed from the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station in Crowley, Louisiana, was sent to Puerto Rico three times for further seed production. A new conventional rice variety, LA2212, which is expected to be released in 2023, was recently harvested in Crowley and immediately planted in Puerto Rico on Sept. 10 for seed production.
“Almost every winter we have a large seed production there along with the routine breeding operation,” he said.
Another benefit of producing seed in Puerto Rico’s Lajas Valley is the flexibility of having a contingency plan in the chance of tropical weather damaging seed plots in Louisiana. Famoso said for the past two years Louisiana has experienced hurricanes or tropical storms at critical times for the harvesting of seed.
“It offers us the flexibility as a backup if something goes wrong,” Famoso said. “You just know if we lose all this stuff, it’s not good, but we can go to Puerto Rico and grow it over the winter. It might delay us a bit in the spring, but it’s not a catastrophe.”
The use of the facility gives the variety development program some risk mitigation benefits as well.
“We will send some seed down there and we’ll send some stuff to the greenhouse,” he said. “We’re not putting all our eggs in either basket.”
The Lajas Valley’s subhumid tropical climate makes for an ideal location for the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez Agricultural Experiment Station. The valley is bordered by the Cordillera Central and the Santa Marta hills, which provide rich, fertile soil, and the Boquerón and Guánica bays, which provide adequate shipping channels from the southwest corner of the island territory. The tropical climate allows researchers to plant rice under similar growing conditions year-round, providing time-saving opportunities.
Famoso said he would normally travel to the Lajas Valley about four times annually, but the COVID-19 pandemic has limited travel opportunities. That’s not to say the vital seed production operations are not in good hands.
“There is a longstanding history, and there is a really good crew,” Famoso said. “You can really count on them to get things done. We have a really good team of researchers down there. That’s the really important thing.”
The facility is operated through a cooperative agreement among the University of Puerto Rico and several U.S. universities, including LSU, Mississippi State University, Texas A&M University and the University of Arkansas, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The funding for the operations that the LSU AgCenter is involved with comes from the Louisiana Rice Research Board checkoff funds. Several private entities, such as RiceTec, Nutrien and HorizonAg, also conduct research in the area. The cooperative agreement allows costs to be dispersed among the separate entities.
“Pretty much everyone working on rice in the southern U.S. has a presence in the Lajas area,” he said.
Another benefit of the facility comes in the form of the island’s political ties to the United States. Stringent regulations restricting the international shipment of rice seed could greatly delay and hamper variety development efforts here stateside, but being that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, those delays such as, phytosanitary quarantine, can be avoided.
“It is very difficult to import rice from other countries into the U.S.,” Famoso said. “It’s a very complicated procedure. You can do it for a few lines, but we’re sending thousands and thousands of lines year after year.”