Growing organic rice has the potential to become a market niche providing good purchase prices for the farmers, but growing organic rice requires much more than just sowing the seeds and letting the plants grow until harvest time.
Scientists from Texas A & M AgriLife Research and Extension Center-Beaumont are developing a three-year, $ 1 million project exploring what rice varieties are best suited to organic farming methods without chemical treatment against diseases, weeds or insects as the team aims to develop a “recipe” for the organic cultivation of this species. Project Leader is Dr. Shane Zhou from Texas A & M AgriLife Research. According to Dr. Zhou, currently less than 2% of the total rice crops in the US are produced organically, most of which are grown in California and Texas. The project started with testing of 20 rice varieties, half of which were rejected because of bad performance in the field. Currently 6 acres in Beaumont are planted with rice varieties that are traditionally grown in Texas. Early indications show that the use of cover crops such as white clover, crimson clover and ryegrass give positive results. The team also tests how many seeds are needed to create optimal plantation. According to Dr. Fugen Dou, the higher the amount of seeds used, the lower the number of weeds in the field as weeds are a major challenge because the farmers cannot use any herbicides. There are also problems with rotting seeds and seedlings, and the farmers cannot use fungicides for seed treatment. A further problem is the lack of nitrogen due to the inability to use nitrogen fertilizers. This results in the appearance of brown spots, which is caused by a fungal disease due to the lack of enough amounts of nitrogen for the normal development of the plant. The overcoming of this problem is facilitated by the use of “green manure” crops such as clover.
According to the agronomist Dr. Muthu Bagavathiannan, the battle against weeds is performed by flooding the rice fields at certain times. Dr. Bagavathiannan has found that applying 3 inches of water to plantings reduces the germination of the most common types of weeds.
The most damaging pest on rice plantations in Texas is the rice moth, according to the entomologist Dr. Mo Way. The larvae stage of this species can cause significant damages. When water is applied earlier on the organic plantation for weed control, the rice is much smaller and only a few larvae can cause a lot of damage.
According to Dr. Bagavathiannan, finding organic farming best practices could pay off for farmers, because although yields are usually much lower than traditionally grown rice, the price is often double.