When Heinz Thomet decided in 2011 to plant rice, perhaps the first farmer in more than 130 years to do so in the Chesapeake region, he remembered a magazine article he had read nearly two decades earlier. It concerned a Jamaican man who’d moved to Albany, N.Y., and adopted a practice that deviated from those of virtually every rice farmer in America: He grew his plants without flooded or swampy land.
“I thought, ‘If they can do it in Albany, we can grow it here,’ ” recalled Thomet, co-owner of Next Step Produce in Newburg.
A Swiss native who grew up on a farm, Thomet, 54, knew that the porous sandy soil in Charles County would never hold water for a traditional rice paddy, at least not without major expense. So he did research and relied on his 40 years of farming experience to cobble together his own idiosyncratic method for growing rice, unaware that some of his practices would place him squarely in the middle of a low-rumbling debate on the best way to produce the grain.
Thomet has unwittingly aligned himself with a small group of experimental U.S. farmers and hobbyists, probably no more than 50, who are breaking with a tradition that dates to colonial America. They’re rejecting paddy rice in favor of an increasingly accepted agricultural system that promises to increase crop yields while decreasing water use, chemical dependency and even the amount of arsenic in our grains.
The beauty of the system, advocates say, is its emphasis on education, not technology. Any rice farmer can reap the benefits just by reading about the sustainable methods and incorporating them. Growers often need no proprietary seeds, herbicides or fertilizers, effectively marginalizing the companies that profit from current rice production methods.
Is that why Big Ag has turned a cold shoulder to the system?
Heinz Thomet is the antithesis of Big Ag. Partly surrounded by conventional farms that raise crops common to Maryland — corn and soybeans mostly — Thomet is a certified organic farmer with an experimental streak as wild as the graying beard that engulfs his face. Next Step has, over the years, sold young ginger, miniature kiwis, persimmons, figs and a variety of grains beyond the winter wheat that’s popular in the state. In that sense, rice aligns perfectly with Thomet’s unorthodox, free-thinking approach to agriculture.
As he began experimenting with rice, Thomet tried a few different seeds, including a jasmine variety and the famous Carolina Gold, which was resurrected in South Carolina in the 1980s after being all but left for dead. Yet it was a Japanese variety, Koshihikari, that responded best to the particular soil, climate and agricultural practices at Next Step. This fall, Thomet harvested more than 400 pounds and started selling the short-grain brown rice for $12 a pound at the FreshFarm Market at Dupont Circle.
It’s not clear when a farmer last grew rice in the Chesapeake region for commercial sale, export or personal use. If anyone has planted the grain in recent decades in either Maryland or Virginia, the effort wasn’t enough to be mentioned in the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years. In his 24 years at Virginia Tech, Carl Griffey, professor of crop genetics and breeding, says no one has ever called him with questions about rice.
Yet, despite its rich connection to the Carolinas, rice does have a modest history in Virginia. In the 1600s, colonists at Jamestown carried out early experiments in rice farming, “not without some temporary success,” wrote Lewis Cecil Gray in his 1933 volume, “History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860.” The grain, in fact, was spotted in Virginia as late as 1781, when a soldier marching to Yorktown noticed a field of rice, “which I thought was a great curiosity,” Lt. William Feltman wrote in his journal.
But by and large, Virginia was considered an inhospitable place for rice “not because it won’t grow, but from an idea that it requires in order to yield large crops, a hotter sun,” noted the author of an 18th-century volume titled “American Husbandry.”
Wayne Randolph, an agriculture specialist at Colonial Williamsburg, has an alternate theory on why Virginia and its farmers never blossomed into rice producers: “I suspect that it was because they were competing with tobacco and [rice] in the low country.”
In 1880, the U.S. Department of the Interior released its Report on the Productions of Agriculture, which noted that “the single state of South Carolina produces nearly one-half” of the rice grown in the United States (more than 52 million pounds out of a total production of 110 million pounds). Even so, Rockville-based culinary historian Michael Twitty says that rice probably was grown in Maryland as late as the 1880s, mostly for home consumption or trade with neighbors.
“With the emergence of railroads, it was becoming a lot less necessary” to grow backyard rice, Twitty says.
Current rice production has shifted to other parts of the United States, namely Arkansas and Louisiana, but it has little in common with the way rice was apparently grown in Virginia in the 1600s: “There is some reason to believe that it was upland, or ‘dry,’ rice; that is, rice raised more or less as are other grains,” wrote the late Karen Hess in her book, “The Carolina Rice Kitchen.”
If you ask Thomet why he decided to grow rice in a region not known for it, he’ll look you dead in the eye and give you the same answer you might have heard from a 17th-century colonist: “I eat rice.”
For the most part, rice in the United States is grown in flooded fields or the boggy lands near rivers or other bodies of water, after practices that date back millennia to rice farming in China and Southeast Asia. The floodwaters serve a purpose: They control weeds that otherwise would compete with the rice plants, which have a unique ability to survive the oxygen-less environment of a paddy field. But as water becomes a precious resource and as consumers fret over arsenic levels in rice (which are higher in plants grown in paddies), some advocates have been promoting an alternative method: It’s called system of rice intensification, or SRI.
What exactly is SRI? Erika Styger, director of programs at the SRI International Network and Resources Center at Cornell University, lays out four practices that broadly define the system. They are transplanting seedlings at a young age (to promote disease and pest resistance); reducing plant density (to decrease competition); adding organic matter such as compost to the soil (to increase fertility); and eliminating flooded fields (to allow the roots to breathe better).
“A lack of oxygen — rice can tolerate it, but rice is not thriving in it,” Styger says. “Usually when you flood the fields, the roots are basically rotting away, because roots need to breathe as well.”
By adopting those methods, or some of them, farmers can produce higher yields (between 20 and 100 percent higher than conventional harvests) with up to 50 percent less water and 90 percent less seed, Styger and her colleagues say. What’s more, SRI can eliminate fertilizers, reduce the methane gases that scientists say contribute to global warming, and dramatically lower the levels of inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form. The latter issue has been a particular concern for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; the agency’s scientists have determined that arsenic in rice (and rice products) poses no short-term risk but are now focused on any potential long-term effects.
In flooded fields, farmers create the oxygen-depleted conditions in which rice plants can absorb more of the arsenic found naturally in some soils, says John Duxbury, a professor of soil science and international agriculture at Cornell. The SRI approach, conversely, creates a more aerobic or oxygen-rich environment that can lower the amounts of arsenic in a plant, he adds. Duxbury has conducted a handful of preliminary tests that show rice grown with SRI practices have inorganic arsenic levels as low as 5 parts per billion, compared to 100 parts per billion for some U.S. rices grown in paddy fields. One of the SRI rices tested was Lotus Foods’ organic Madagascar pink rice.
SRI advocates say they also have the field evidence that the system delivers on its promises. Since its introduction in the 1980s in Madagascar, SRI has been adopted by farmers in more than 50 countries. The SRI Center’s Web site is rife with research papers and journal articles analyzing the success and occasional setbacks of these practices overseas.
The evidence has been conclusive enough to attract significant endorsements. Over the years, SRI has been championed by a diverse list of organizations, officials and potential funders. Among them: Oxfam America, Africare, Worldwide Fund for Nature, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the immediate past president of the World Bank and at least two state agricultural ministers in India. SRI’s success has also inspired farmers to adapt the practices to other crops.
SRI has even attracted the attention of Jim Carrey. Yes, that Jim Carrey, the actor better known for his comedic turns in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Dumb & Dumber.” Through his Better U Foundation, Carrey has given more than $4 million of his own money to fund SRI education and practices around the world, including the launch of the SRI Center at Cornell, which is the epicenter of international SRI research, networking and promotion.
After its initial three-year grant, Better U is now helping the center raise money for its annual operations.
Despite its acceptance overseas and its high-profile endorsements, SRI has barely made an impression on U.S. rice growers, aside from sustainability mavericks such as Thomet and Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, the heirloom grain company in Columbia, S.C. Roberts, in fact, is an even rarer breed: He’s raising paddy rice and experimenting with SRI trials in his fields.
“I’m not going to go away from flood rice,” says Roberts, who employs intermittent flooding. “I’m just going to grow twice as much rice.”
Major U.S. rice growers may never even get to the experimentation phase with SRI, which they view as better suited for subsistence farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. “It’s more appropriate for other parts of the world, where land is at a premium and workers are not,” says Michael Klein, vice president of marketing and communications for the USA Rice Federation, an advocacy group for the America rice industry.
“It’s not a method that lends itself to feeding several billion people,” Klein adds. It’s an economic issue: Large-scale rice farmers, Klein says, simply would not be able to afford the labor to weed their fields.
What’s more, the U.S. rice industry is already developing seeds and refining agricultural techniques to increase yields and reduce water use. The industry, for example, has devised ways to limit flooding with the application of herbicides and the use of herbicide-resistant rice varieties, says Steve Linscombe, director of the Louisiana State University AgCenter Rice Research Station near Crowley, La. Linscombe says such systems have helped reduce water use by 15 to 20 percent.
Rice researchers are also developing seed varieties that, one day, may be drought resistant or grown with less water or even tolerant of higher-salinity water. “Water resources are the most limiting resource,” says Linscombe. “You can absolutely grow rice with less water. . . . It’s coming down the road in 10 years,” at the earliest.
SRI advocates scratch their heads over such high-tech research. Norman Uphoff, professor of government and international agriculture at Cornell and senior advisor of the SRI Center, often wonders why major U.S. rice growers don’t just adopt SRI practices instead of wasting time on expensive systems that SRI proponents contend are ultimately unsustainable. If growers need evidence, Uphoff can point them to a large-scale, mechanized farm in Pakistan that has had success incorporating SRI practices into a number of crops. The Pakistani experiment, Uphoff notes, “really opened up the door for large-scale production.”
Some rice farmers have no motivation to investigate SRI because water prices remain affordable — or because the system isn’t applicable in their area, says Susan McCouch, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell. She is also the co-organizer of a National Science Foundation-funded project to support small-scale organic rice production in the northeastern United States. McCouch says flat-out that SRI doesn’t work in the northern temperate zone; flooding, for example, is mandatory in those climes to help buffer against cold temperatures early in the season.
“There is no one size fits all,” she says.
McCouch sees SRI as more a belief system than a collection of practices that can be adopted anywhere in the world. SRI, she says, is a trust in the individual farmer — and not Big Ag — to decide what seeds and what agricultural practices are best for his land. In a sense, McCouch is describing a farmer much like Heinz Thomet, who through his own investigations stumbled upon some SRI practices. To McCouch, Thomet may be the perfect embodiment of SRI, which can serve as a symbol for the future of American agriculture.
“We need something like that to believe in agriculture again,” she says.