Urban farmer Nazirahk Amen, left, and Che Axum, director of urban ariculture and gardening education for the University of the District of Columbia, walk among their experiments in dry-land rice at UDC’s Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

As a child in Northeast Washington, Mchezaji “Che” Axum recalls, he snacked on rice with milk and sugar. And his colleague Nazirakh Amen grew up in Louisiana, home of gumbo and etouffee, where, he proclaims — striking a fist on his desk for emphasis — “You don’t. Eat. A meal. That doesn’t have rice.”

Today, Axum directs the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education at the University of the District of Columbia; Amen runs Purple Mountain Organics and Wisdom Path Healing Center, both in Takoma Park; and the two are collaborating on a project based on rice — a local project with global implications.

Instead of growing rice in the familiar paddies, they are conducting a three-year study in growing it just as you’d raise wheat or eggplant or apples: that is, on dry land. They’re doing it on a farm connected with one of the country’s smallest land-grant universities, and the only one based in a city. The goal: to produce a nutrient-dense crop that can be grown in urban areas.

In recent years, conventionally grown rice has been connected to some disturbing effects: high levels of arsenic and lead, lavish water use, rice paddies that produce more methane than cattle feedlots do.

In truth, rice doesn’t require those troublesome paddies. Farmers flood their fields chiefly because rice can grow underwater but most weeds cannot.

So some farmers have tried varieties of rice adapted to dry upland areas. Others have reduced pesticide use or the size of paddies. Still others employ the low-water, high-yield System of Rice Intensification developed in Madagascar.

A few years ago, Amen and Axum started to discuss small-scale grain production and its role in maintaining a dependable local food supply. Amen submitted a successful research proposal to CAUSES — the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences at UDC. Administrators there were intrigued.

“We were asking the question, could you grow rice in the District of Columbia, in the Mid-Atlantic region, and could you grow it in a small space?” recalls Sabine O’Hara, dean of CAUSES and director of UDC’s land-grant programs. They also wanted to grow it without disturbing the dense urban ecosystem: no standing water that could breed mosquitos, no pesticides that might contaminate water or air.

Che Axum inspects the results of his experiments in dry-land rice at UDC's Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Obstacles and success

The Nutrient Dense Rice Project, as it’s officially called, uses a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to track and compare the growth of two rice varieties — the Russian Duborskian strain and Koshihikari from Japan — irrigated with lines buried at two levels, six inches deep or one inch deep. All plants receive meticulous application of natural fertilizers at specific stages of rice kernel development.

Axum and Amen planted the first crop at UDC’s Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, Md., in the spring of 2014, and the trial was on.

There were obstacles. Stink bugs, Japanese beetles and cucumber beetles munched the plants, and the yields weren’t as high as Amen had expected. UDC didn’t have a soil and plant testing lab set up, and the team wasn’t able to hire a student worker, as it had hoped to do.

The successes, however, were clear. Amen and Axum cut water use to almost half what farmers usually apply, thanks to the buried irrigation lines and strategic watering times.

The Koshihikari strain, with irrigation lines laid one inch under the soil, delivered the best results: more than 2,800 pounds of rice per acre, almost double the yields seen by Maryland farmer Heinz Thomet, who has been experimenting with rice for four years.

Furthermore, contamination with heavy metals was dramatically reduced. The amounts of cadmium, arsenic and lead in that first crop were all below detectable levels.

Meanwhile, Amen has traveled to learn from farmers and to present at sustainable-agriculture conferences. “I try to talk to whoever I can,” says Amen, who says he doesn’t consider himself a farmer. “I have buddies.”

During this 2015 growing season, Amen is seeking to increase yields by applying what he learned through those connections and the first year’s results. He has also teamed with Thomet to embark on a new experiment, testing 10 different rice varieties through Amen’s connections. The varieties come from places as far-flung as Brazil and the Philippines, and as close as Massachusetts.

To show that their methods are viable, the researchers must replicate the same results at least three times, so the experiment will take years.

Rows of rice are growing on dry land, rather than in traditional paddies, at UDC’s Muirkirk Research Farm. Irrigation lines are buried beneath the plants. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A global challenge

As the District’s population has grown, so have communal efforts. District residents embrace co-housing, co-working and co-ops of all kinds. Shared bikes cruise city streets. Community garden members keep communal sheds and compost piles, and the Department of Parks and Recreation offers collective composting and a city-wide tool share.

Similar efforts on a global scale aren’t as easy. Food production, distribution and environmental impact are major concerns as the Earth’s population balloons toward 9 billion, O’Hara points out. “If we don’t take another look at the food system and where we grow things and how we grow things, we’re not going to meet that challenge,” she says.

That is where the Nutrient Dense Rice Project could contribute. Until now, small growers had to scale down agricultural research findings to fit small farms or community gardens. The new rice trials could flip that model, generating methods that cities worldwide could adopt as is. O’Hara sees immediate applications for countries like China, where most of the arable land is maxed out. Then there’s the promise of new enterprise for small farmers.

The project’s grant application reads at times like a sustainable-farming manifesto. It refers to small grains such as rice as “the base of humanity’s food security” and declares: “Our future depends on creating models of adaptability. Putting grain production into the hands of the small farmer is a step in the right direction.”

And how about the quality?

Axum has yet to test the first year’s rice for nutrition, but flavor is an indicator of nutrient density. The tastier, the more nutritious. Recalling the sample he prepared in the rice cooker he bought for the experiment, he reports “real, natural flavor” that’s “earthy” and “a true experience.”

As for Amen, he calls it both fresh and satisfying. “Maybe it’s just me being delusional,” he says finally, “but to eat that rice that we grew and got to the plate, that was amazing.”

Kennedy is a lecturer at Gallaudet University and a freelance writer. Her Web site is rheakennedy.com.

Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the origin of the System of Rice Intensification; it was developed in Madagascar.