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Furrow-irrigated rice finding a place in Mid-South

Father and son experiment with row rice. Up to 4,500 acres.

Mike and Ryan Sullivan, a father and son team who grow primarily rice and soybeans near Blytheville, Ark., experimented with three fields when they decided to give furrow-irrigated or row rice a try.

Ryan Sullivan, who had recently graduated from Arkansas State University, heard about row rice in a presentation by Missouri consultant Wendell Minson at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference.

“When my son, Ryan, got out of college about three years ago, he said ‘Dad, we’ve got to figure out a better way with levee rice,’” Sullivan said. “We’re putting the levees up, and when we get to harvest we’re tearing them down. We have these precision-graded fields, and no matter what you do you just can’t get them back right again. There’s got to be a better way."

The older Sullivan was speaking at a stop on the Mississippi County Rice Irrigation Field Day, an annual event put together by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, researchers with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at Arkansas State University and the Sullivans and their families.

They planted three fields with the intention of irrigating them with furrow irrigation rather than the traditional levee system used by rice farmers the world over. There was a learning curve, Sullivan notes.

“We tried 800 acres the next year, about 2,000 last year, and we’re at about 4,500 acres out of 7,000 this year,” he said. “By no means has he (Ryan) got it figured out, but he’s on a mission. It’s going to be hard to turn him around now.”

Sullivan said the USDA researchers at the Delta Water Management Research Unit at Arkansas State are playing a critical role in their efforts to make row rice work. “They’re quantifying a lot of the water use data. The University of Arkansas is working on the fertility trial part of it. It truly is a partnership. It’s revolutionizing the way we grow rice.

“I think Ryan will tell his children, ‘We used to have this thing called a levee plow, and they’ll say ‘what was that?’”

Next: Ryan Sullivan describes how a furrow-irrigated approach is helping with rice and soybean watering on the Sullivans’ farming operation called Florenden Farms.

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