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Cornell Cooperative Extension Establishes New Project to Help New York State Farmers Learn How to Grow Rice

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The first harvest of the new Cornell project to help New York state farmers learn how to grow rice resulted in a waterfall of grains pouring from the hopper of a harvester in a drained rice paddy about 10 miles from campus.

Susan McCouch, Ph.D., professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), was present to grab a handful of the harvested rice.

“The grains are looking quite good right here – they’re not discolored, they’re healthy. I think we just go ahead and dry them down and see how they cook up. It looks great,” she said, inspecting the grains.

McCouch is part of a team led by Cornell Cooperative Extension that is growing rice on two demonstration plots: in a flooded rice paddy in Freeville, New York, and in dry conditions in Candor, New York, in Tioga County. The project will also include online “how to” growing guides, and research to identify areas in the Northeast that are suitable for rice, as well as surveys to understand farmers’ willingness and limits to growing it.

The Cornell team will also investigate how rice growing provides shelter for birds, stormwater, pollution mitigation, and more.

Jenny Kao-Kniffin, CALS associate director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, stated, “This is the right time, in terms of flood-risk issues and the need for diversified farming practices in New York state and across the Northeast.”

Due to climate change, the severity and frequency of rain and flooding in the Northeast have increased. New York farmers, especially small growers, are facing escalating risks of flooding on their land. Kao-Kniffin, an associate professor in SIPS’ Horticulture Section, said that too much water threatens high-value crops like vegetables and fruit. “It just takes 48 hours of flooding or so, and the harvest could be gone, especially if it brings in inches of silt.”

Many farmers have transitioned away from high-value crops and instead plant other crops like hay in flood-prone areas. According to experts, rice can provide a lucrative alternative.

Erik Andrus who owns Boundbrook Farm in Vergennes, Vermont, in the Champlain Valley, nets 12,000 USD per acre of rice. Acting as a consultant on the project, Andrus said, “Comparatively, with a good corn crop, a farmer might make between 350 USD and 800 USD per acre in profit off it.”

He sells brown rice for 6.50 USD per pound and about 7.50 USD for white rice to customers, including the high-end restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Tarrytown, New York.

Luke Gianforte of Gianforte Farm in Cazenovia, New York, said that would-be New York rice farmers need assistance to learn how to do it right. With the guidance of Gen Fumio Onishi, a rice farmer and a now-retired member of the McCouch lab, Gianforte has been farming rice as an experiment on 2.5 acres since 2012. Rice is an addition to the organic food-grade grains the Gianforte Farm grows which include corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, and triticale.

“It was very wet ground to start with. We weren’t growing any other crops there so rice gave us an option,” he said. Even with that, Gianforte Farm could still use the kind of assistance that the Cornell project provides, citing that while this year was a success for the farm, last year was a failure.

The two CCE demonstration plots replicate scenarios facing New York farmers. The rice paddy in Freeville at Cornell’s Homer C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm was decommissioned from vegetable production 15 years ago due to flooding from the adjacent Fall Creek. According to McCouch, rice doesn’t need flooding to grow as “it’s the only major crop that can actually take oxygen from the air and send it down through its stems to its roots in waterlogged soil. Most plants can’t really grow well in anaerobic (waterlogged) soils.”

The demonstration plots at CCE Tioga County’s Hilltop Community Farm in Candor showed that rice will also grow in dry conditions. “Rice can be grown in raised beds covered with plastic mulch to hold water and suppress weeds – I call it growing rice as a vegetable – and that’s much easier if you have the infrastructure to do it,” said McCouch.

The team planted rice varieties that grow in cold climates such as northern Japan, Korea, Ukraine, Russia, and Chile. “We are growing varieties that are grown on the edge, the absolute edge of rice’s growing range, as rice is tropical in origin,” stated McCouch.

Andrus was tasked by the CCE to provide expertise and teach the CCE staff how to grow rice at the demonstration sites. “I have believed from the get-go that this is one of these areas of agriculture where we need a community and we need sharing of information. We on our farm have had to master so many domains that we really didn’t choose for ourselves, but we had to do them in order to make the rice project advance. I needed to figure out how to do field engineering and hydrology analysis and irrigation planning,” Andrus said.

Some farmers feel that there are too many things needed to learn to grow rice but according to Andrus, the CCE project can help change that. He said, “People can witness this, and then imagine themselves doing it. This is a really important step, to have demonstrations where, warts and all, we can show people how we’re getting production done.”

CCE imported a harvester, as well as a planter, dryer, dehuller, and polisher, from Japan. Andrus helped to demonstrate the equipment farmers need and how to run and maintain them. These machines, available at low second-hand prices, are designed to operate on small pockets of land, like what most New York farmers have.

Researchers say that where the rice can be grown will be just as important. Chuan Liao, M.S. ’12, Ph.D. ’15, assistant professor of global development (CALS), and Wendong Zhang, assistant professor, and extension economist at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in the SC Johnson College of Business and CALS, are tasked with assessing maps that show flood risk, topography, and existing land use, and more to identify areas that are best suited to rice.

“We’ll focus on agricultural flood plains, instead of converting natural areas or wetlands into agriculture,” said Liao, who grew up eating rice every day in his native China. They’ll also survey farmers who grow rice, as well as farmers who do not but have flooded fields, to understand their motivations and the barriers that would limit them from growing rice.

“We don’t imagine this will be an overnight transition because farmers would dedicate a small patch of their land to try rice first and see if that works, and gradually expand the scope of rice farming,” Liao said. “So the transition will take some time.”

Birds can also benefit from rice planting on New York farms. Birders have identified 11 species of shore birds at some of the rice paddies. The United States Shorebird Conservation Plan advocates for rice agriculture which, if managed appropriately, can provide important habitat for migrating shorebirds. The researchers will evaluate how rice can provide those and other environmental benefits, from carbon storage and stormwater water retention to mitigation of fertilizer pollution.

McCouch envisions the environmental and economic benefits to extend throughout the region. “It would show people a little bit more about how water is managed and how this crop can be integrated, utilizing land that cannot be used for other crops.”

Ji-hyun

Hailing from California, USA. Ji-hyun is a Korean American 🇰🇷🇺🇸 with two growing boys who eat their weight in rice each week. After graduating UCLA & becoming a mom she started We Know Rice as a guide for all the students and moms out there looking to cook healthy and filling meals.

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