March 22, 2023
The vision for a state-of-the-art facility in northeast Arkansas will soon become reality. Groundbreaking for the Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center (NERREC) is set for May 9, 2023, and the planned construction boasts a wealth of opportunities for researchers and stakeholders alike.
Tim Burcham, director of the NERREC at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, shared about the process for the long-awaited construction.
The lay of the land
In 2017, a property was located off Arkansas Highway 1 – between Harrisburg and Jonesboro – in the Greenfield community. The 600-acre farm was acquired in 2018, and Burcham came aboard as NERREC director in 2019.
He said the 500 tillable acres of the farm are broken into 21 separate fields. Infrastructure needs were addressed, and land leveling began in 2020. Crop production soon followed.
“In 2020 we planted about 140 acres of soybean on selected fields,” he said. “In 2021 and 2022, everything was put into crop production either in research or demonstration.”
A 32-acre preexisting reservoir irrigates the farm, and two pumps provide additional irrigation from the bordering L’Anguille River. Burcham noted that crops were solely irrigated for the past two seasons with surface water. That is great news since the farm is situated in the Cache River Critical Groundwater Area.
Last summer, a well was constructed on the farm and will be connected to the irrigation network for the 2023 crop season. It was drilled deeper than typical wells in the region due to groundwater decline.
Other infrastructure updates include the use of automated moisture sensors and flow meters to monitor irrigation in all 21 fields. In addition, the Greenway Equipment Shop was completed in 2021, and the site for the new center has been leveled and is ready for construction.
Establishing the strong foundation
While waiting for the concrete foundation to be poured, the NERREC team adamantly works to lay the foundation of research and outreach – essential to fulfilling the mission of the station.
Burcham described the 2022 replicated field trials and demonstrations conducted by crop scientists at the Division of Ag. These studies include the rice variety and performance trials, DD50 thresholds, nitrogen recommendations, and improved rice breeding. Variety testing for soybean and hybrid corn were also conducted.
Much work is centered around sustainable rice production and focused on soil health, to provide research-based information on the Henry Silt Loam soils common to the Delta region.
Collaborative projects with Anheuser-Busch are conducted on zero-grade fields, targeting cover crop variations, advanced nitrogen management, and a row rice and soybean rotation in tandem with winter cover is underway. Water use, efficiency, and greenhouse gas emissions are also studied with projects by the USDA – Agriculture Research Service, Delta Water Management Research Unit.
Last year NERREC amped up outreach. From Jun. through Oct., the center hosted six field days with a variety of workshops and field tours. Completion of the NERREC facility will undoubtedly advance these efforts, as the new building will provide on-site innovation and the capacity to deliver research results on a grander scale.
Rice Discovery Experience
A big component at the NERREC includes hands-on, education opportunities that the team calls the “Rice Discovery Experience.” A classroom and demonstration kitchen will be used for these activities.
The NERREC will serve as a field trip destination to learn about the ecosystem, wildlife, and sustainability – all directed toward rice. This experience is geared toward schools, homeschooling groups, and interest groups alike.
“Our goal is to grab the attention of school-aged children and invite them to be active in rice-centered education,” said Ashlyn Ussery, an Agriculture and Natural Resources instructor at NERREC. “We want to fill the gap for those who are not familiar with agriculture and provide them with a foundation in rice production – from the field to the kitchen.”
Ussery looks forward to the possibilities and is preparing for the in-person program launch. Lessons are currently available on the Arkansas Cooperative Extension webpage for teachers to use in their classrooms while the facility is being built.
Breaking ground in 2023
Plans for the NERREC are designed by WER Architects. Nabholz Construction Corporation is currently collecting bids to enter the value engineering stage.
“In this stage, we will look for places where we can save money without impacting the quality or mission. Groundbreaking will occur after we ensure funding for the maximum guaranteed price,” Burcham explained.
Funding for the NERREC construction comes through the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board, provided by the Colombia TRQ (tariff rate quotas) program as part of the U.S. – Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, and private donations. The Greenway Equipment Company donated $2 million dollars for the center and farm equipment.
The full spectrum of construction is estimated to take 18 to 24 months. The center building, exhibition hall, and equipment shop will be named after the Greenway Equipment Company in recognition of its gift initiation and support. The planned center includes offices, labs, public meeting spaces, a demonstration kitchen, and a dedicated youth education classroom.
Burcham affirmed, “Digital innovation is key in the design. We want to be the experiment station that meets the needs of today and tomorrow.”
The small team that started with only three full-time positions and one hourly employee has now grown to five total full-time positions and seasonal hourly workers. The new facility will allow for continual growth as scientists come aboard, with room for new projects and proposals at the NERREC.
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