Linda Benedict, Schultz, Bruce
Rice farming on a widespread commercial basis in Louisiana began in the late 19th century, and rice research soon followed.
Farmers who came to Louisiana from the Midwest were attracted to the warm climate, cheap land and the realization that rice could be grown with the same equipment and agricultural practices used for other grains. Besides the ample supply of flat ground, Louisiana also had something else needed for growing rice – water.
But it became obvious that new rice varieties had to be developed for the Gulf Coast, and the research effort began.
One of the first improved varieties was Blue Rose developed by Salmon “Sol” Wright, a Crowley area rice grower and entrepreneur
“Blue Rose was a dramatically improved variety over the then current varieties such as Japan and the old Carolina Gold that had been used for almost 200 years,” said Steve Linscombe, director of the Rice Research Station.
In addition to the migration of farmers to Louisiana, many farmers already in Louisiana had turned to rice after sugar prices crashed in the 1800s. Louisiana rice production went from 1.5 million pounds in 1864 to more than 40 million pounds by 1877, according to the March 1932 issue of Rice Journal.
By the late 1800s, developers were advertising land for sale in southwest Louisiana, boasting of the area’s abundant water and mild climate. Acadia Parish, where the Rice Experiment Station would be located, became the leader in the rice industry with some of the best yields.
The 1890 crop was a record breaker at 80 million pounds, making Louisiana the No. 1 rice producing state, surpassing the former leader, South Carolina.
In the early 1900s, more Louisiana farmers switched to rice, according to the 1910 Annual Report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Experiment Stations: “The ravages of the boll weevil have made the growing of cotton less profitable than formerly, and the farmers are turning to rice growing. This necessitates the installation of pumping plants, the building of levees, etc., and the cotton growers are usually entirely unfamiliar with such things,” according to the report.
The 1910 report detailed the origins of the new station: “A substation for rice culture was established at Crowley, and work was begun during the spring of 1909. The station is conducted in cooperation with this department. Local parties gave 60 acres of land for the use of the station and subscribed $3,500 for buildings. The legislature authorized its establishment by an act passed July 1, 1908, but no appropriation for the purpose was made at the time. F.C. Quereau was called from the University of Tennessee to the position of assistant director in charge of this station.”
The 1911 report indicates the Louisiana Legislature appropriated $15,000 for maintenance during the next two years. A 60-horsepower gasoline engine to pump water was installed for $2,500 in 1910. Research included testing of 300 rice varieties and studies of insects, irrigation and evaporation.
The grandfather of Calcasieu Parish farmer John Denison was among the Midwest farmers who came to southwest Louisiana, making the move in 1890. “He was one of the original settlers,” said Denison, who still lives on the original 160-acre homestead his grandfather settled.
Land developers, such as J.B. Watkins of Lake Charles, came to Louisiana to buy large expanses of land to be sold to farmers. Once agriculture became established, railways were built. Denison said that Watkins helped bring Seaman Knapp to Louisiana to LSU. Knapp Hall on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge is named after him. “He was truly a pioneer in the rice industry in southwest Louisiana,” Denison said.
In 1949, the station bought 720 acres of land northeast of Crowley, the site of the current station. One of the important functions at the new location was to establish the Rice Research Station’s Foundation Seed Program to ensure a pure source of seed for rice farmers. Since then, the program has sold almost 200,000 pounds of seed.
In 1963, the station expanded by 320 acres with the South Farm, located two miles south of Crowley. Crawfish research, which takes place on the South Farm, began at the station in the 1970s and is the largest facility of its kind in the world. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Agriculture phased out its role at the station, now run entirely by the LSU AgCenter.
Rouse Caffey, former LSU AgCenter chancellor, worked at the research facility from 1962 until 1970.
“When I came to the rice station, they had just moved the rice station from west of Crowley to east of Crowley on 719 acres of land. The old station west of town had been relegated to rice pastures and beef cattle work.”
He said he started doing research in northeast Louisiana after some efforts were initiated to get a rice research facility in that part of the state.
“I started out field testing in East Carroll Parish, testing varieties, dates of planting, fertilizer, weed control, and insect studies, and that went on throughout my time. And it has served the people of southwest Louisiana very well.”
The first disease-resistant rice variety, Saturn, was developed by Nelson Jodon at the station and released in 1964. Jodon is considered a pioneer in the use of genetic markers for rice breeding.
In 1972, Louisiana rice producers took the initiative to have more research done, forming the Louisiana Rice Research Board. Growers agreed to pay 3 cents for every 100 pounds of their rice crop sold at the mill to fund research projects. Louisiana rice growers approved increasing the assessment to 5 cents per cwt. in 1992. That program has generated more than $30 million in research projects.
The station has helped develop shorter stature rice varieties less likely to get knocked down after storms, Denison said, and that has helped boost yields.
“The research station has always been aggressive on attacking problems,” Denison said, adding that the station’s work has helped keep rice profitable.
“The Crowley Rice Research Station has been important to rice farmers because we are probably the most disadvantaged rice producing state there is.” He explained that Louisiana yields are less than other states, while disease pressure is higher.
Denison said a 20-barrel yield was once considered respectable, but now that total has more than doubled.
“When we made 20 barrels to the acre, we thought we had a great crop. Then when we planted Nato (a rice variety developed in 1956), we were suddenly able to make 30 barrels to the acre. When Saturn was developed, we were making 40 barrels to the acre. So, you can easily see how our gross income would increase with these great improvements in varieties.”
Higher yields were not just the result of new varieties, however, as the station’s studies of agronomic practices have also increased production.
The practice of land-leveling was perfected at the station in the 1960s. Any major insecticide or fungicide labeled for use in the southern United States was tested thoroughly at the station, including the herbicide propanil that allowed rice breeders to develop shorter rice less susceptible to lodging, or falling over.
The station had a herd of cattle until 1990 to replicate the growing conditions of farmers who are also in beef production.
Clearfield technology developed at the station in the late 1990s resulted in rice varieties that enabled farmers to make considerable progress against red rice. This technology allowed farmers to drill-seed rice into dry soil instead of water-seeding from the air.
The varieties developed at the station during the past 15 years dominate the southern U.S. rice growing regions. Clearfield acreage could exceed 70 percent of rice grown in the south in 2012, Linscombe said.
In total, a century of rice breeding at the station has resulted in 49 varieties.
“We have close working relationships with rice stations all over the world,” Linscombe said. The Rice Research Station obtains new breeding lines and germplasm from all over the world. In recent years, lines acquired from Chinese breeding programs have given a boost to the hybrid rice project at the station.
Rice is unique among commercial crops, Linscombe said, because many rice varieties are still developed through publicly funded research while other commodities, such as corn and soybeans, rely mostly on commercially produced varieties.
Research at the station has changed drastically, thanks to improvements in technology and knowledge. Linscombe said rice breeders 40 years ago would have chosen experimental lines from 4,000 rows a year. Now, breeders make selections from more than 100,000 rows.
The use of DNA markers to determine if a line has desired characteristics has decreased the time required to develop a new variety. The use of a winter nursery in Puerto Rico also enables varieties to be available sooner, decreasing the time by several years.
Bruce Schultz, Assistant Communications Specialist, Communications, LSU AgCenter, Crowley, La.
(A shorter version of this article was published in the spring 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)