As the nation’s number-one rice producer, the economy of Arkansas places a premium on every aspect of the crop’s production, from the the availability of unique and hardy varieties, to the financial success of our producers in the field, to the impeccable quality of the finished product.
As the primary institution of higher education in support of agriculture in the state, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture spends a significant portion of its resources and efforts working to make sure rice, and the people behind it, succeed.
Nathan McKinney, interim director of the Rice Research and Extension Center (RREC), came to the research station in the summer of 2016, after serving various roles in the Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Station.
McKinney said he encourages his researchers — there are about a dozen scientists attached to the RREC — to take a “portfolio” approach to their research. Solving problems that rice growers face today is the highest priority.
“That’s what I call ‘applied’ research,” McKinney said. “Most of our effort is targeted towards answering present-day questions or applying a new approach, a new variety or technology to solve a problem.
“However, part of that research portfolio is also forecasting what problems producers may see 10 years from now,” he said.
“Some of our far-reaching, basic research is trying to answer the question, ‘what happens when rice is exposed to high nighttime temperatures?’” McKinney said. “And what causes the physiological stress in rice under various climate conditions? What physiological pathways can we exploit to overcome heat stress? We have fundamental questions that we currently have no answers for — we have some blank spots in our knowledge of the physiology of rice.”
Focus on rice
Although researchers at the RREC conduct studies on other crops essential to Arkansas and the region including corn, soybeans and wheat, the focus is on rice.
Jarrod Hardke, Extension rice agronomist for the Division of Agriculture, has been with the RREC since 2012. He described his applied agronomic work at the research center as research aimed at affecting production-based recommendations.
“We look at every variety of rice available to us, from both commercial seed companies and those varieties we breed ourselves, to see what works best under a range of conditions,” Hardke said. “One of the biggest points of emphasis is on-farm cultivar trials — actually comparing the different varieties and hybrids a grower has to choose from to observe their relative differences on various farms under different production systems.”
Over the course of multiple years and weather cycles, Hardke said, the Division of Agriculture is able to synthesize data that gives growers the best shot at success, from choosing the best cultivar for their soil to dealing with pests and environmental pressures as they arise.
Hardke said that over the long term, rice research in the state evolves through the extension and feedback process, as agronomic data is pushed out to growers through Cooperative Extension Service agents, and agents deliver feedback back to researchers.
McKinney said the research has also been guided by challenges specific to Arkansas and the region, such as a potential scarcity of groundwater in the near future.
“Our irrigation engineer, Chris Henry, has introduced a wealth of ideas new to Arkansas farming, and various water conservation measures for rice production,” McKinney said. “So that’s broadened the scope of the station’s research.
“We’ve also had a rice breeding program here for 60 years or so, but we’ve recently added a hybrid breeding emphasis. A new hybrid breeder joined us in November of 2015,” he said. “Hybrid seed production in rice is relatively new, and it has broadened the scope of our breeding program.”
McKinney said all the researchers working under the RREC’s umbrella are to some degree involved in evaluating constant and increasing environmental stresses, and taking measures to help growers overcome those challenges.
“For example, this year and in some recent years, it’s turned out that high nighttime temperatures created a lot of yield and grain quality problems for rice producers,” McKinney said. “It’s robbed us of millions and millions of dollars. And we’re attempting to solve that problem. Some of the pieces of the puzzle are falling in place, but there are still other pieces we’re trying to discover.
“Everybody on this station is involved with that, either directly or indirectly. All of our scientists have their hands in it,” he said.
Researchers and staff at the RREC also work closely with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dale Bumpers researchers at the nearby Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, also located in Stuttgart, as well as other entities, including the Mid-South Breeding Consortium.
“We’re bringing in the best resources to collaborate with, and to give us ideas and input,” McKinney said.
Hardke said the facility is unique in that it remains the only fully faculty-staffed research Extension center in the state.
“We house all relevant disciplines in the faculty here at the station, permitting us to be housed right in the heart of the rice-growing region of the state, performing our work,” Hardke said. “We’re here, we’re accessible. Our full-time job is rice, the rice industry and its improvement. That’s how all our time is spent — that’s unique to this location.”