Dustin L. Harrell, Dartez, Valerie, Famoso, Adam
Dustin Harrell, Adam Famoso and Valerie Dartez
Rice production in southwest Louisiana began in earnest during the early 1880s. The rice industry rapidly increased in the region in the years that followed. From 1896 to 1909, rice acreage in southwest Louisiana expanded from 148,000 to 370,000 acres with average rice yields ranging from a low of 855 pounds per acre in 1896 to a high of 1,642 pounds per acre in 1908. Rice industry leaders in the region recognized the importance of rice to southwest Louisiana and began to take measures to ensure the sustainability of the rice industry. The leaders knew that if the rice industry was to maintain a foothold in the region, experimentation and incorporation of improved rice cultivars and agriculture practices would be essential.
In 1908, Louisiana legislators passed a bill authorizing the State Board of Agriculture to establish a rice experiment station in southwest Louisiana. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, also interested in increasing research into rice, joined with the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station to establish the rice research facility. While the experiment station and the USDA agreed on the division of work each would do, the state of Louisiana couldn’t reach a decision on funding until they could determine what support the rice industry would provide.
Louisiana Gov. J.Y. Sanders appointed a committee, including Experiment Station Director W.R. Dodson, to advise and act on the project. Community interest in the project was high across the region. Eleven different sites with financing for the station were offered by the towns of Crowley, Jennings and Lake Charles — with Crowley coming out on top. The Police Jury of Acadia Parish appropriated $3,000 for the purchase of a 60-acre farm with a five-room house, while the citizens of Crowley and the surrounding vicinity provided $3,500 for the construction of necessary buildings and improvements.
The Rice Research Station was established on April 1, 1909, with a mission to:
Thirty-one individually leveed fields, each precisely 1-acre square, were constructed for experiments during the first year. Trials included a date of planting, water depth, rotational, seeding rate, seed quality, row spacing, tillage and variety. Most trials used the popular varieties of the time — Honduras, Carolina Gold and Japan. The Japan rice was a variety called Kiushu, which Seaman A. Knapp of the USDA, who is credited with establishing demonstration farms for teaching science-based techniques, brought back from Japan in 1898.
The Category 3 Grand Isle Hurricane of 1909 reduced yield and lodged rice that first year; however, many of the trials were still salvageable. A foundational system of harvesting certain varieties was put into place to obtain “pure and sound” seed. The harvested panicles were labeled and stacked alone or placed indoors, threshed by hand, sacked and labeled. This was the beginning of the Rice Station’s seed program.
As the industry expanded, so too did the problems that farmers encountered. As such, the demand for research also increased. Expansion was needed to provide additional land for research and seed production. In December of 1930, LSU purchased 51 acres adjoining the original tract to bring the total acreage of the station to 111 acres.
The first variety released from the Rice Station was Colusa in 1917. This variety was obtained from a selection by C.E. Chambliss and J.M. Jenkins from a Chinese variety that was introduced from Italy in 1909. The variety was not widely grown in Louisiana, but it did become an important variety in California. S.L. Wright, a private breeder in Crowley, made a selection from Japanese rice being grown near Jennings in 1907. This selection became the variety Blue Rose, which was released commercially in 1911. Blue Rose was the dominant rice variety being grown in the United States for more than 25 years. The Rice Station released a total of eight varieties from 1917 to 1932; however, it was difficult for a new variety to take away acres from Blue Rose during that time. Growers were anxious to grow higher yielding varieties with improved agronomics, but rice buyers and millers discouraged the change.
The Rice Research Station was heavily cropped for the first 30 to 40 years. Yields were frequently becoming lower each year, and increased weed, disease and insect pressure was observed. Red rice was especially problematic. Some of the increased pressure could be attributed to the rapid shift of harvesting methods from binders and threshing machines to combines and rice driers. Airplane seeding, fertilizing and spraying also created new avenues of research. In addition, active interest in seed certification presented the station with the mission of producing and maintaining a supply of pure foundation seed for Louisiana rice growers.
Regional rice growers recognized the need for more land, free of red rice, where an expansion of research and foundation seed could be grown. The rice growers and industry personnel, working with state legislators, obtained an appropriation of $360,000 for a two-year period for expanding the Rice Station. Two adjoining tracts of land totaling 719 acres were purchased in the spring and summer of 1949, and both the original and new Rice Station were farmed in 1949.
The foundation seed program as we know it today began its first season in 1949. The foundation seed had 40 acres of increases at the original Rice Station, while seed production for seed distribution was conducted at the new station. A total of 965 barrels of foundation seed were sold to 78 farmers in 1951.
The Rice Research Station was further expanded with the purchase of 324 acres, approximately 1.5 miles south of Crowley, in December of 1963. The tract of land was used to further expand land needs and meet the research and foundation seed production demands. Today, the Rice Research Station’s South Farm provides several acres for the foundation seed program and is also the location of crawfish, weed science and rotational crops research.
Clearfield seed technology was developed at the Rice Research Station by Tim Croughan, former rice breeder, in the late 1990s. The first commercially available varieties were released from the station in the early 2000s. The Clearfield seed technology, developed from mutation breeding, is a non-GMO seed technology that enables rice growers to use a herbicide (imazethapyr) that kills red rice without harming Clearfield rice. This was the first-ever herbicide-resistant rice technology released for commercial production. This technology drastically changed rice production in the United States as well as around the world.
By the 2010s, outcrossing of Clearfield rice varieties and hybrids with red rice and volunteer Clearfield rice led to fields that were infested with Clearfield-resistant weedy rice. This Clearfield weedy rice prevented the use of the Clearfield technology in some fields. Provisia rice was developed by BASF by non-GMO mutation breeding. The first U.S. adapted Provisia variety was developed at the Rice Station by Steve Linscombe, former rice breeder and now professor emeritus, and released commercially in 2018. The Provisia rice provided a second herbicide-tolerant rice system that could chemically control red rice, conventional rice, Clearfield-resistant red rice and off-types. The third Provisia variety (PVL03) developed by Adam Famoso, associate professor and rice breeder, will be commercially available on a limited basis this year. Including PVL03, the Rice Research Station has released a total of 58 varieties. A graph showing the change in varieties and hybrids and the seed technology grown in Louisiana over the past two decades is presented in Figure 1. Hybrid breeders at the Rice Research Station, led by Jim Oard, hope to release the first university-developed hybrid soon.
A recent economic analysis of the impact of rice research and promotion in Louisiana from 1995-2019 indicated that every $1 spent on rice research and promotion produced an economic return of $56 to the Louisiana rice production sector.
Future developments and discoveries by scientists at the Rice Research Station are inevitable. Demand for rice research by station scientists is once again greater than the available land dedicated to the research. This is a testament to the international reputation and quality of work done by Rice Station scientists over the years. The Rice Station’s breeding and foundation seed programs will continue to provide new varieties and seed to ensure the sustainability of the rice industry in Louisiana and beyond for generations to come.
Dustin Harrell is a professor of agronomy and the resident coordinator at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station in Crowley. Adam Famoso is an associate professor, and Valerie Dartez is a research associate at the station.
(This article appears in the spring 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
A field day at the Rice Research Station. Photo provided by Dustin Harrell
An early picture of the original office of the Rice Station around 1909. Provided by Dustin Harrell
This photo is from a collection of historic photos at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station in Crowley. Taken in 1909, it is most likely a display created by personnel at the then Rice Experiment Station for a local fair, showing the varieties of rice available. Provided by Dustin Harrell
First laboratory building and the barn in 1911. Photo provided by Dustin Harrell
Figure 1. Rice seed technology used from 2000 to 2020 in Louisiana.