On a warm, dry, late April day the fields alongside the road from Stuttgart, Ark., to the Rice Research and Extension Center east of town are full of farmers planting crops. Fields at the center itself are no different.
New facility director Bob Scott steps from his truck and approaches the driver of a tractor, who’s stopped on the turnrow. The two exchange pleasantries and several jokes before the driver climbs back in the cab.
If he’s nervous in his new position, Scott is good at hiding it. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the center’s importance in the long arc of rice research, though.
After years of work in Lonoke and Newport, how did Scott, a well-established weed scientist in the state (and Delta Farm Press contributor), come to take the reins in Stuttgart?
“I think I had some success at Lonoke and Newport and have seen some things here that we can do similar. I’ve been a weed scientist for 15 years with Extension and five years before that in industry — so, 20 years. That’s a long time. This opportunity came up and it was time for a change professionally.
“My former position was a very good job with great support from the promotion boards. It was tough to leave — good equipment and, most importantly, I worked with excellent people who got things done.
“But I look forward to this opportunity and am very excited to work with different disciplines. Previously, it was all about herbicides. Now, in a single day, I may talk about pathology, entomology, the breeding program. You spoke with one of our breeders already and you can tell we want to get great, new options out as soon as possible.
“I’ve always said that next to variety selection, weed science is the most important decision growers make.”
Now, he gets to be involved with both.
Is Scott bringing a new focus to something at the center?
“I think over the years the visibility of the station is down a bit. The Expo and the Rice College put on by (state rice specialist) Jarrod Hardke are big deals, but I think we can do more.
“This facility is one of the leading rice research institutes in the world — not just in the United States. I want to do everything I can to make sure that continues and everyone knows it.”
Scott’s predecessor was interim director Nathan McKinney.
“He had a long weekly commute from Fayetteville. They’d been on a long search for someone for the job — ever since (former longtime center director) Chuck Wilson moved north to Keiser. There are some changes going on within the University (of Arkansas) currently. They’re remapping the internal structure of management of the experiment stations and centers. Most people would say I’m the director of the Stuttgart ‘station’, but actually we are a center. Basically, centers differ from stations in that they have faculty.”
This center, in particular, is part of that.
“We have faculty, we house the Extension Service, researchers, foundation seed, and the breeding program. Because of that diversity, this facility is positioned to be a key player in the new redefinition of some rules.”
Hubs and greenhouses
Also in the works: the development of a new center in Jonesboro, Ark.
“I believe land has already been identified for that. Chuck Wilson is up there working on development of that facility. The long-term plan is for faculty to be up in the Jonesboro station. Once that’s up and running, I think Jonesboro and Stuttgart will be the two sister centers that act as hubs in the university system.”
Looked to for breakthroughs in rice production, the Stuttgart center first began in 1925. Staying cutting-edge in research requires a proper set-up.
“My predecessor started a process of renovation. We’re like everyone else in government, right now: running on a very tight budget. But one of my goals is to renovate some of the older structures, get rid of old buildings and get new ones up. Infrastructure, such as water and roads and reservoirs, also need attention.”
That’s already been going on, says Scott, and “I’m inheriting a good start. We have a new foundation seed building and are through our second season using that awesome facility. Some great guys are running that.
“We’re almost ready to open a brand new state-of-the-art greenhouse and growth chamber facility. That’ll facilitate the work of two teams in particular. … I believe the ribbon-cutting will be in (May).”
First, researchers “will be working on solutions for high nighttime temperature problems in rice. That’s a big thing that costs growers a lot of money in the state. Right now, there aren’t a lot of answers for these problems — you don’t know when you’ll see the problems, they have to come at a certain time of the year when rice is at a certain maturity. So, we have a new team in place to work on the nighttime temperatures.”
Second, the greenhouse will facilitate better variety research. “We have a breeder, Ehsan Shakiba, whose primary focus is on developing a hybrid program. He isn’t the first to work on that, but having this new greenhouse facility will greatly help with his efforts.”
What are Scott’s views on meshing concerns of the state rice sector and the center’s priorities?
“Look, we have to pay attention to those concerns. Everyone knows we’re the largest rice-producing state, and the crop is incredibly important to the state’s economy.
“My vision as director is that everything we do here, at the end of the day, should be looking at ‘how do we make rice profitable for farmers to grow?’ When I hear acres are going to corn or soybeans, I get concerned.
“Obviously, it all comes back to making money — growers go where the market takes them. But we can make rice more attractive through finding ways to lower input costs, raising yields, the breeding program, and all the rest. If the station isn’t helping growers through making rice a profitable option, we’re probably missing the mark to some degree.”
Scott may have moved on professionally, but one suspects he will always carry the heart of a weed scientist. He’s the current president of the Southern Weed Science Society.
And there is no escape from the unfortunate legal skirmishing around the state with dicamba.
“The dicamba situation does bother me. It’s such a concern because it’s driven a wedge between so many people — between groups of growers, between some growers and the university, between growers and the Arkansas Plant Board. We’ve always had a good state plant board. They’ve always been willing to work toward Section 18 labels, Section 24C labels. They’ve gone to bat for the ag community in that respect many times.
“So, it’s disheartening to see agriculture divided the way it is over a herbicide.”
However, says Scott, this, too, shall pass.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 20 years it’s that herbicides come and go. Right now, dicamba is extremely important to a lot of guys for weed control. Five years from now, dicamba may not even be at the forefront of their thoughts. It’s very sad that this one product has caused so much turmoil.
“Of course, many things have come together to put us in the situation we’re in. There’s been a kind of condensing of technology down to where we don’t have many options for pigweed. You’re either a LibertyLink person, or you’re not. If not, for many the alternative is dicamba. For others, if they still can use PPO chemistry, they have other options.
“But the dicamba situation will eventually pass. What has gotten us here? It’s the overreliance on single technologies that are tied to seed and force your hand on weed control. That’s stymied the development of new herbicides.
“Saying this, I sound like an old man,” says Scott with a laugh. “But when I was in graduate school, new herbicides seemed to come out every day. They may not have been new modes of action but certainly new sites of action. Now, there hasn’t been a truly new herbicide come out in a while. There’s been no new mode of action discovered since the 1980s.
“It’s interesting, in my new position, that rice made the decision to not go the GMO route. There are a lot of people who think rice has suffered in terms of production because it hasn’t had the same development as beans and corn in the ‘GMO revolution.’ This may or may not be true in terms of yield and value-added traits.”
There is good news, he says.
“We have at least three truly new herbicide technologies being introduced through next year: Provisia, Loyant and Rogue. Why is that? It’s because we didn’t fall into relying on a certain or single herbicide which was tied to a certain variety.
“So, from a herbicide standpoint, I’d argue rice is better off than, say, soybeans. We have new modes of action for rice. Right now, for soybeans, it’s a struggle.”