Missouri rice production now extends as far north as Cape

Monday, September 24, 2012
Heath Burger navigates the combine through his family's 270 acres of rice Wednesday off Route AB in Cape Girardeau County. This was the first year the family has grown rice, and is the only rice farm in Cape Girardeau County. The combine holds 325 bushels. The rice harvest is transported to a grain bin in Benton, Mo., where it will dry out until January or February before it is sold. More photos are in a gallery at semissourian.com. (Laura Simon)

While rice has been grown for more than 20 years in the Southeast Missouri Bootheel, it's now produced as far north as Cape Girardeau.

"They're finding out they actually can grow it, do well with it," said Donn Beighley, a rice breeder and manager of Southeast Missouri State University's Missouri Rice Research and Demonstration Farm in Malden, Mo. "I think Missouri producers are very progressive. They're willing to try new things."

Southeast Missouri is well-suited for rice production because of its level fields and existing irrigation.

"The average has expanded. There are more and more farmers actually growing rice, so the appearance that it's moving northward is there because there are more and more acres," said Dr. Mike Aide, chairman of the Agriculture Department at Southeast.

Missouri has about 200,000 acres of rice this year. In 2000, Missouri farmers harvested 150,000 acres, according to the University of Missouri Extension.

Rice uses the same type of combine as corn, soybeans and wheat, so many farmers already have the necessary equipment.

When it comes to preparing fields for rice planting, there are some major differences, Beighley said.

Rice pours out of the combine Wednesday off Route AB in Cape Girardeau County.

"Rice is pretty much flood. We don't put in rows," he said.

Advances in chemicals have allowed rice production to be done with the same type of irrigation equipment used with corn or soybeans called center pivots.

"Even 10 years ago, it was a lot harder to do something like that. We have better chemicals, better management practices, you can use a center pivot and do extremely well," said B.J. Campbell, a Butler County rice farmer and member of the Missouri Rice Council, a trade group.

A couple weeks after the plants emerge, herbicides and fertilizers are added and the fields are flooded. They'll stay flooded until the heads have emerged, turned down and become a sandy color.

When it comes harvest time, the water is drained. Farmers wait a week to two weeks before the land is dry enough to drive a combine through the field.

As of Sept. 17, 63 percent of Missouri's rice had been harvested, about 20 days ahead of last year and 16 days ahead of normal, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Sixty-six percent of the rice harvested so far has been in good or excellent condition. This year's drought may have increased farmers' production costs as a result of having to pump more water into fields to keep them flooded, but it doesn't appear to have had a dramatic impact on yields.

Good yields, between 180 and 200 bushels per acre, have been seen in Missouri and Arkansas, said Greg Yielding, Missouri representative for the U.S. Rice Producers Association.

With rice, grain quality is almost as important as yield, Beighley said. Most of Southeast Missouri's rice is used domestically in the production of beer or pet food. About half of Missouri rice is exported and growers say opening new export markets, including China, will be key to their future success.

"There are some countries we still can't export to. We've been trying to open up Cuba for several years. We've done taste testing in China. Chinese people want our rice. They perceive it as healthy. They don't trust their government," Campbell said.

Incomes in China are increasing and customers there are willing to pay more for U.S. rice, said Campbell, who traveled there earlier this year to take part in a taste test.

The Chinese government currently has an embargo on American rice, but negotiations continue between the USDA and Chinese government.

When it comes to rice production, Missouri ranks fourth out of six rice-producing states, Yielding said.

Southeast Missouri State University's Rice Research Field in Malden is leading the way in breeding new varieties of hybrid rice, Aide said.

"Eventually the genetics that are produced in Missouri will be the basis for feeding 2 to 3 billion people. It's all here in Southeast Missouri. We've got the intellectual capital," Aide said.

The U.S. Rice Producers Association is working to expand export markets as well as increase domestic rice consumption.

The average consumption in the U.S. is about 25 pounds per person per year, Yielding said. His organization is working to get more rice in school lunch programs in Missouri. More than 70 school districts in January will put rice on the menu every week. Every morning they'll have a rice dish for breakfast.

"That's the way we're going to build domestic consumption is to get into schools. Not just in the Bootheel, where a lot of people eat rice here because they grow it, but we want to be in northwest Missouri, St. Louis, Kansas City and all over," Yielding said.

mmiller@semissourian.com

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Malden, MO

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