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OPINION | REX NELSON: The rice capital

by Rex Nelson | September 26, 2021 at 1:55 a.m.

In 1923, the Arkansas Legislature authorized establishment of a research facility for the state's rapidly expanding rice industry. Work began in 1926 on what was known as the Rice Branch Station.

"The University of Arkansas had made an earlier attempt at establishing a station at Lonoke in 1902, but the facility closed for lack of funds," Christopher Deren writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "The initial property for the Rice Branch Station at Stuttgart was 160 acres purchased from Sam Taggart. Part of the property had been in rice production since 1908, making it one of the oldest rice farms in Arkansas.

"Rice farming was generating a lot of interest in the Stuttgart area at the time, and influential members of the community, particularly B.E. Chaney and Charles Spicer, pushed hard for creation of the station. Five subsequent land purchases brought the total acreage to almost 1,000 acres. ... The Grand Prairie, lying between the White and Arkansas rivers, was particularly suited for rice cultivation. As a native prairie, it was covered primarily by grasses and other herbaceous plants."

Frequent fires on the prairie helped keep the land free of trees.

"The soil that supported this landscape had a hardpan, a layer of nearly impervious clay-like soil about six inches under the surface," Deren writes. "This hardpan prevented water from percolating through the soil, a trait that made it ideal for flooded rice cultivation. This, coupled with ample available water, led to development of the Arkansas rice industry. After the first farmers' experiments and successes at growing rice, it was obvious that research was needed on production issues.

"The Rice Branch Station, which was renamed the Rice Research & Extension Center in 1981, focused on addressing these issues. The most important research topic was development of rice varieties adapted to the regional environment. ... More than 30 rice varieties have been developed at the center. These varieties have been grown not only in Arkansas but also in other rice-producing states. Research on other areas of production include soil fertility, irrigation, plant physiology, entomology, plant pathology and various aspects of crop, soil and water management."

There are a couple of 40-acre reservoirs, greenhouses, seed-processing facilities and laboratories. An expanded lab facility was completed in 2009.

Stuttgart also is home of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center. USDA has conducted rice research at the site since 1931. In 1998, a state-of-the-art facility was finished, allowing USDA's Agricultural Research Service to expand the scope of research and increase the size of its staff. It's the largest federal rice research center in the country.

Farmers and researchers from around the world have visited the federal and state facilities at Stuttgart. There was a problem, though.

Arkansas grows half the nation's rice, and almost 60 percent of the state's crop is produced north of Interstate 40. The soil to the north is different than that on the Grand Prairie. Rice research also has been done at the Northeast Research & Extension Center at Keiser in Mississippi County, but that soil near the Mississippi River also is different from soils in leading northeast Arkansas rice-producing counties such as Poinsett, Jackson and Craighead.

In 2017, the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board dedicated $4 million toward construction of a rice research center between Harrisburg and Jonesboro. Almost 600 acres were purchased in March 2018. That land contains a 32-acre surface reservoir and is bordered on the west by the L'Anguille River.

The new Northeast Rice Research & Extension Center also has received contributions from the private sector, including $2 million from Greenway Equipment. That donation was announced in April. The gift provides $1 million for equipment and another $1 million toward construction of an exhibition hall. John Conner Jr., the Greenway chairman, is a University of Arkansas graduate.

"Having such an extensive family presence at the University of Arkansas, along with the importance of the rice market to our region, the Northeast Rice Research & Extension Center is a great fit," Conner said.

Marshall Stewart, Greenway's CEO, says the center will "open doors to new segments of our community to gain a better understanding of the importance that agriculture, specifically rice, plays in our region, state and world."

Greenway, established in 1988 at Newport, now has 32 locations in Arkansas and Missouri with more than 700 employees.

The University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture hired Tim Burcham away from Arkansas State University to run the center just south of Jonesboro. Burcham says the facility will have research labs, ample space for community meetings and space dedicated to educating students about rice production in Arkansas.

Research conducted here includes water management from surface and ground sources, remediation of fertility in recently leveled fields, and improved conservation and sustainability practices. For now, office space is being shared with Greenfield Brown Rice Co., which specializes in brown rice production, largely for the pet food industry. Nearby are the offices of RiceTec, which develops hybrid rice seeds.

"We're right in the heart of things," says the always enthusiastic Burcham as I visit him on a Tuesday afternoon.

He talks about a building that will have everything from the exhibition hall seating 250 people to a demonstration kitchen to the education wing. It will be a showplace for the state's rice industry.

Research already is going on in the fields. Construction of a shop and storage complex began earlier this year. Meanwhile, design and engineering work is being done for the research, education and administration complex.

According to the center's website: "The mission of the Northeast Rice Research & Extension Center is to discover and develop innovative, efficient rice production practices, using genetically diverse and adapted cultivars to maximize net return for Arkansas rice producers and provide extension-based education and outreach to the public.

"The NERREC will conduct research on rice-production practices that maximize farm income while conserving natural resources. In particular, water-use efficiency will be a priority. This farm is west of Crowley's Ridge, so it's typically more costly to irrigate with groundwater in this region than rice production areas east of Crowley's Ridge.

"NERREC will conduct research on irrigation automation technologies that have the potential to increase water-use efficiency and enhance sustainability."

Despite working from temporary offices, Burcham is conducting weed control, cover crop and row rice trials. An integrated irrigation system was designed by UA water management engineer Chris Henry and irrigation educator Mike Hamilton. It includes the reservoir and pumps on the river. There also will be a well.

"We have capacity in the system to move water from three water sources simultaneously and deliver it to multiple fields," Burcham told ricefarming.com. "With three water sources and outlets in 21 fields, we're trying to get a handle on which fields can be watered simultaneously. ... Some of that is trial and error. We hope to have a better handle on that capacity going into next year's production."

The shop that's currently being built will include 4,500 square feet of interior space, 6,000 square feet of covered space for equipment storage and 1,500 square feet for sprayer cleaning and chemical mixing. The interior space will have an office, break room, tool room and shower.

The 26,000-square-foot main building will house six laboratories and 12 offices in addition to the public section. Rice is a major part of the Arkansas economy. This center will be a tribute to those in the industry while teaching young Arkansans about rice's importance.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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