Steven Linscombe, Sha, Xueyan, Schultz, Bruce
News Release Distributed 4/28/05
Several times a year, scientists from the LSU AgCenter travel to the Caribbean. But they’re not taking the trip to lounge on a beach and sip frozen daiquiris.
Instead, they’re enduring the heat and tromping through the cement-like mud of Puerto Rico to develop new varieties of rice.
The constant warm weather on the tropical island of Puerto Rico, a U.S. possession between the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands, allows rice to be grown all year. So when rice farmers in Louisiana are planting their crops in the spring, the LSU AgCenter scientists are harvesting Puerto Rican rice planted in the fall or winter.
The LSU AgCenter rice nursery, in the Lajas Valley of Puerto Rico, has been instrumental in the release of such widely used varieties as Cheniere, Cocodrie and Clearfield 161.
"Every new variety in the past 20 years from the LSU AgCenter has relied on the Puerto Rico nursery for development," said Dr. Steve Linscombe, a rice breeder and regional director for the LSU AgCenter, who also oversees its Rice Research Station at Crowley. "The whole idea behind this nursery is to turn breeding material over quickly."
The Puerto Rico nursery enabled rapid availability of a new variety, Trenasse, which was released this year for seed production.
"If we had not had the Puerto Rico nursery, it would have been next year before it would have been released," Linscombe said.
Other breeding programs have been established in the Lajas Valley, located in the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico.
The LSU AgCenter established its nursery in the early 1970s in a cooperative agreement with the University of Puerto Rico. The University of Puerto Rico’s Agricultural Experiment Station at Lajas serves as the support base for the nursery.
A total of 55 acres is available for growing rice. So others have joined in the cooperative endeavor, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Texas A&M, University of Arkansas and Mississippi State University and several agricultural companies.
"All of that is a benefit to the Louisiana rice industry if good varieties are coming out of any of these programs," Linscombe said.
Another benefit of the multiple partners involved in the nursery project is that the cost of running the rice operation and upgrading equipment can be shared with the other partners, he said.
"If it was just the LSU AgCenter, it would be too expensive," Linscombe explained.
In addition, several contributions by the Louisiana rice industry and the LSU AgCenter are evident at the University of Puerto Rico’s Agricultural Experiment Station at Lajas.
Mike Dronet, shop foreman at the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station near Crowley, designed and built a small grain dryer for the Puerto Rico facility.
Linscombe said growing potential varieties in Puerto Rico enables development of a line of rice ready for a field test in two years.
Linscombe and Dr. Xueyan Sha, the LSU AgCenter’s specialty rice breeder, recently traveled to Puerto Rico. Linscombe harvested rice for his work at developing a new variety of herbicide-resistant Clearfield rice, and Sha worked on medium-grain and aromatic varieties.
"Without the Puerto Rico nursery, we would be growing this generation of Clearfield in Crowley next summer instead of growing it now," Linscombe said.
Sha scanned the short research rows for just the right plant height for improvements in his medium grain. "Not too tall. Not too short," he said as he looked. He also selected panicles from thick stands of rice, because farmers want varieties that produce several tillers.
Panicles were picked by Sha and Linscombe from earlier generations of rice showing good characteristics, such as height and tillering. That rice will be planted to allow for improvements in the uniformity of the lines and to reduce the number of off-types.
Rows of later generations of rice that showed potential were cut and threshed to be planted in Louisiana for yield testing.
Sha said the nursery has been quite helpful for his work.
"By planting the Puerto Rico winter nursery, we can grow one to two extra generations each year, which means a savings of at least one to two years," he said of the rice breeding process. "Second, it gives us extra time to get our promising lines purified and get seeds increased for the earliest release.
"Last but not least, it gives us some flexibility. Sometimes, the best-looking lines don’t produce enough seeds for multi-state and multi-location trials. With the Puerto Rico winter nursery, you don’t need to wait another year for the trials."
The nursery is only needed after and before the rice growing season in the continental United States.
"The earliest I have planted was Aug. 5, and the latest was Feb. 5," Linscombe said.
Even with constant warm weather, growing rice in Puerto Rico is not foolproof, the experts say. The crop is the target of predatory insects, birds and fungal diseases.
"Insects are the biggest issue in the tropics," Linscombe said. "These things can come in here in large numbers the day after someone scouts the field and doesn’t find anything."
This past winter, armyworms devoured much of the young crop at seedling stage. Most of the rice recovered, but the result was uneven maturity. Some panicles were empty of any grain, and Linscombe said that’s probably due to unseasonably low temperatures.
"It’s an ideal place for us to grow rice, but like anywhere else, you’re going to have off years," he said.
Net canopies, held aloft by a network of poles and wires, are used to protect the rice from predatory birds.
Those and other portions of the day-to-day operations are overseen by Anthony Rivera, the man in charge of growing rice at the Puerto Rico nursery.
"Anthony is very dedicated," Linscombe said. "He puts his heart and soul into it."
Rivera previously worked for RiceTec, a Texas-based seed company that has a nursery in the Lajas valley. He has a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of Puerto Rico.
Rice previously was grown commercially on the island of Puerto Rico – and at times the crop occupied as much as 30,000 acres – but commercial production of rice has ended.
"People come here to see what rice looks like, because they’ve never seen it before," Rivera said.
That also means all the workers employed at the station have to be trained in the intricacies of flooding a field and applying fertilizer and pesticides.
Rivera travels to the United States each year to visit the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station at Crowley. That gives him a firsthand look at the practices commonly used in the United States, and he can adapt them for Puerto Rico, Rivera said, adding that the visit also gives him a chance to see the varieties in their final development.
"It’s good to know I’m working on all the rice programs in the United States," Rivera said. "There’s satisfaction in that, plus I like to farm."
Steve Linscombe at (337) 788-7531 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Xueyan Sha at (337) 788-7531 or email@example.com
Bruce Schultz at (337) 788-8821 or firstname.lastname@example.org