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OPINION | REX NELSON: Rice land

Arkansas farmers strive to meet sustainability goals while benefiting wildfowl migration by Rex Nelson | September 26, 2021 at 2:04 a.m.

Marvin Hare points to a photo of a family duck hunt as we sit in the conference room of his farm headquarters near Newport.

"The best thing about this farm is that it's a family operation," Hare says. "My grandfather first planted rice here in 1918. We're still doing it, and we're doing it sustainably. We're trying to make sure the farm is in the family 100 years from now."

This land has been in the family since 1886. Official "century farm" signs decorate the walls of the offices. While Hare also raises soybeans and corn, it's evident that rice holds a special place in his heart as he prepares to harvest his 55th crop.

"There's a concrete slab out there that has been around since 1918," Hare says. "That's where the engine for a well used to sit. We had that engine for decades. As long as things are working, we don't make changes often around here. There's a Vietnam War-era engine we're still using."

Hare's daughter Jennifer and her husband Greg James live in the house her great-grandparents built in 1939. Jennifer has become a national leader in the rice industry, having chaired the USA Rice Sustainability Committee.

The committee is focused on growing rice in an environmentally friendly way while providing habitat for ducks and other waterfowl.

In 2018, USA Rice and the Rice Foundation released a 36-year study of the U.S. rice industry's sustainability record. The report showed a 28 percent reduction in soil loss, a 34 percent cut in energy use and water savings of 52 percent during the period studied.

"After that study was released, we started looking toward the future," Jennifer James says. "If we've done this well in the past, where are we going? How much can we improve? We brainstormed a little bit, and we arrived at the rice industry's sustainability goals."

By the end of this decade, the industry hopes to:

• Increase land use efficiency by 10 percent.

• Decrease water use by 13 percent.

• Decrease soil loss by 8 percent.

• Decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent.

• Decrease energy use by 10 percent.

Jennifer James told Farm Progress soon after the report was released: "When you look at waterfowl migration in North America, 20 percent of that overlays with rice-growing areas. That's no coincidence. To rebuild that habitat would cost about $3.4 billion. That's habitat we're already creating in our rice fields. That's what we're contributing to those species and their development."

When it comes to soil and water conservation, she told the publication: "A lot of us have precision-leveled our fields or are in the process of doing so. That's a great way to decrease our soil loss. Maintaining good drainage ... and utilizing tailwater recovery will help soil loss. Conservation tillage, cover crops and the use of furrow irrigation in row rice also will help with soil loss and reduce water use."

In 2019, James became the first woman to serve on the Riceland Foods board. She attended a women's leadership conference and heard a speaker say: "If you don't see yourself or someone like yourself representing your interests, then it's your job to fill that seat."

At the urging of several area growers, she ran for and was elected to the board. Stuttgart-based Riceland, the world's largest rice miller and marketer, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

"In the late 19th century, most of America's rice was grown in Louisiana," writes Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks. "William H. Fuller from Carlisle went to Louisiana on a hunting trip. He recognized that the conditions there for growing rice were similar to those in the Grand Prairie region of Arkansas, which at the time was used primarily for grazing cattle. Its hard-pan clay was well suited for irrigation and retention of the volume of water necessary for a rice crop. After experimenting, Fuller produced his first successful rice crop in 1904.

"However, early rice farms lacked a consistent market, being dependent on buyers from Texas or Louisiana who passed through Arkansas sporadically. In addition, farmers had no way to store their crop for long periods in slack times until market conditions improved. In 1907, a group of farmers decided to improve their market situation, building the first Arkansas rice mill. It became known as Stuttgart Rice Mill Co."

A second mill was built adjacent to it in 1910 as rice acreage increased across the Grand Prairie.

"Crop prices fluctuated wildly during and after World War I, dropping from $3 a bushel to 30 cents a bushel during the same growing season in 1920," Hendricks writes. "In January 1921, Arkansas rice producers met in Stuttgart to try to stabilize the situation. On Sept. 23, 1921, they created a farmers' cooperative. Calling themselves the Arkansas Rice Growers Cooperative Association, they decided to lease enough rice mills so their rice could be sold as a finished product. After initial setbacks, the Stuttgart-based group reorganized in 1926 and then began steady growth."

Local grain-drying cooperatives were formed during the 1940s across east Arkansas. Products began being packed and advertised under the Riceland label in 1946.

"A radical shift took place in 1954 when government acreage controls were imposed on rice farmers, who responded by planting more soybeans," Hendricks writes. "In 1958, with a need for better soybean marketing, a sister organization to the Arkansas Rice Growers Cooperative was formed. Named the Arkansas Grain Cooperative, it shared receiving, drying and storage facilities for soybeans with a soybean processing plant in Stuttgart.

"Recognizing this expansion of mission, the organizations were merged and the name Riceland Foods was adopted in 1970. Riceland's line of rice, soybean and wheat products is now distributed through the U.S. market, which has seen a doubling of rice consumption since the late 1980s."

In addition to its own brands, Riceland is a major grain supplier to companies such as Anheuser-Busch, General Mills and Kellogg's.

Arkansas ranks first among states in rice production, producing almost half the nation's rice. While the center of rice cultivation is the eastern half of the state, rice also is grown in southwest Arkansas and throughout the Arkansas River Valley. In fact, rice is grown in more than 40 of the 75 counties.

The state is home to about 2,300 rice farms, 96 percent of which are family owned and operated like the Hare farm. Due in part to high soybean and corn prices at planting time in the spring, rice acreage is down a bit this year. The state averages 1.2 million acres of rice planted annually.

Arkansas rice contributes more than $6 billion annually to the state's economy and employs more than 25,000 Arkansans.

With the founding of the Rice Council in the late 1950s, rice producers voluntarily contributed a portion of the profits from each crop to promote rice domestically and abroad. In the 1970s, farmers began voluntarily contributing to a fund for research. The programs were combined into one state agency, the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board, in 1985.

Legislation that year set an initial refundable rate of 2 cents per bushel with an automatic increase to 3 cents per bushel in 1987. Of that amount, 1.65 cents of each assessment was set aside for research with the remaining 1.35 cents for promotion and market development.

A legislative act in 1999 created a mandatory assessment of 1.35 cents per bushel to be paid by producers and 1.35 cents to be paid by the first buyers. The funds raised by the grower assessments are reserved for the research program, while buyer funds are reserved for promotion and market development. Hare is a past chairman of the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board.

"We use our resources conservatively," Hare says of his farm, which is three miles from the White River and six miles from the Cache River. "The water that leaves our fields is cleaner than the water that came into it."

Hare says his son-in-law has specialized in learning the details of government programs for farmers in order to determine which ones might be utilized on the farm. The farm is a showplace for best practices in agriculture and waterfowl conservation.

"I don't like to see unused water flowing into a ditch," Greg James says. "We become more efficient in how we do things with each passing year."

In the 1990s, Hare, Greg James and Jennifer James began working with Ducks Unlimited to build habitat and food plots for migrating waterfowl. Hare was presented the Conservation Champion Award at the Arkansas Waterfowl Hall of Fame banquet in November 2017.

Jeff Rutledge, who was Arkansas Rice Federation chairman at the time, said: "Early on, Marvin recognized the need for conservation and the wise use of farm resources. He became the first proponent of techniques that employed new ideas and technologies to produce more grains with fewer inputs.

"Marvin was one of the first individuals to stand in the gap and deliver one of the most important pieces to provide food and habitat for those wintering waterfowl. He continues a legacy of conservation within his family."

Of the 6,400 acres the family farms, 2,000 are in rice this year.

"Greg and I handle the production while Jennifer watches the books," says Hare, who's wearing a shirt that says Arkansas Rice. "You have to watch your costs. If you don't, they'll eat you up before you know it. It's a team effort, I assure you. Everybody here realizes that farming isn't a short-term business. You better be prepared to lose money or at best break even in some years."

Hare was raised in this area and went on to graduate from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. After our meeting in the conference room, he drives me around the farm, pointing to a section his grandfather put together in the 1930s. There's rice on one side of the road and corn on the other. The grass along the gravel road is mowed. There are no weeds visible in either the grass or the fields. A plane flies over doing aerial scouting of the fields.

"We take pride in this place," Hare says.

Domesticated rice isn't native to North America. It has been cultivated in central Asia for thousands of years and later spread to the rest of Asia, the Mediterranean basin and Africa. Rice was introduced on this continent when it was planted in South Carolina in 1694. Naturalist Thomas Nuttall reported seeing rice cultivated at Arkansas Post in 1819.

"Around 1840, some farmers in Arkansas experimented with rice as a crop, but they found that maintaining proper growing conditions for the grain was difficult," writes Steven Teske for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Rice grows best in flooded fields, but it's easier to plant and harvest when the ground is dry. Technology in the 19th century didn't offer affordable solutions to the problem of irrigating fields on the schedule that a rice crop provides."

Fuller had come to Arkansas from Nebraska. He invested $400 in pumps and other equipment and planted three acres of rice in 1897. The results weren't encouraging.

He moved to Louisiana and worked on rice farms there for several years before returning to Arkansas in 1903. Several businessmen in Hazen offered him a $1,000 bonus if he could raise 35 bushels of rice per acre in 1904. He planted 70 acres that year and produced a crop of 5,225 bushels.

That was more than double the output required to collect the $1,000. Arkansas was on the road to becoming the rice capital of America, a title it's likely to retain for decades to come.

Print Headline: Rice land

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