Exploring dryland rice production in the mid-Atlantic

Final Report for FNE15-832

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2015: $11,405.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Heinz Thomet
Next Step Produce
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Project Information


This experiment helps to identify successful dryland rice varieties in the Mid-Atlantic region while expanding a knowledge base of methods and techniques for increasing yields growing rice as a specialty crop. Eighteen varieties were trialed on a quarter acre plot in the 2015 growing season with GRIN (Germplasm Resources Information Network) data collected including tillering, plant height, lodging, percentage of empty heads, yield, and harvest date. Planting began in mid-May after a month of growth in seeding pots and harvesting took place between September and October.

Working together, an increased understanding of rice plant physiology and soil fertility requirements in a dryland rice production model led to increased yields form previous years on the farm. Dryland rice production yields have traditionally been estimated at 50% that of flooded fields with the national average for flooded fields at 8000 lbs per acre. Through understanding crucial phases of plant growth and monitoring nutrient and moisture levels, we were able use black plastic and three weeding events to control weeds and drip tape to customize soil moisture to dramatically increase on farm yields from previous seasons of 1700 lbs per acre to a range of 2460 (South River Duborskian) to 4857 lbs per care (Blue Bonnet).  Results of foliar sprays of nutrients based on plant sap analysis was inconclusive and this method is not recommended at this time.  Taste evaluations provided good description of flavor and texture, there were no conclusive ranking results.  Volunteers taste evaluaters were utilized by a chef partner but a lack of standardized rice preparation and evaluator sensory training caused the data to be more subjective in nature.  Chefs felt naming the rice variety with a name indicative of flavor is important in the marketing.  Two farm field days were held and presentations on the variety trial was captured in a PowerPoint slide show.


Small scale grain production is experiencing a resurgence among organic farmers. Rice ranks third in grain production worldwide, but is the most widely utilized grain for human nutrition. Traditionally grown in paddy systems, rice can also be grown in upland or dryland conditions. Next Step Produce is an innovative 86 acre certified organic farm located in Southern Maryland. Established in 2000 by owner/operators Heinz Thomet and Gabrielle Lajoie, Next Step Produce is a well diversified operation featuring vegetables and fruit production along with heirloom grains such as rye, barley, oats, sorghum, bread and pastry wheat, and rice.  The farm follows biodynamic principles and adheres to a biological approach to fertility relying heavily on composting and cover crops.  The rice is grown using upland methods after being germinated in seed trays and transplanted into the field. This method relies on the plant’s ability to tiller or stool and requires less than a tenth of the seed rate of conventional paddy systems. Yearly plantings of close to one acre on this farm have yielded and average of 1700 lbs/acre, which is low compared to the 8,000 lb/acre national average for paddy rice. Next Step Produce has been able to offset those low yields by asking a fair market price, which has averaged $8 - $12/ lb. The fair market price was determined by considering higher labor and management costs associated with growing rice and also prorating cleaning, hulling and milling equipment cost. The upsurge in the local food movement in the DC/Baltimore area has created increased market demand for fresh local grains. Primary grain customers are locally committed restaurants such as the Woodberry of Baltimore, artisanal bakeries, microbreweries, and farmer’s market customers.   With demand greater than supply, Next Step Produce has been trialing rice varieties since 2012 seeking higher yielding varieties.

In 2014, Heinz met Nazirahk Amen of Purple Mountain Organics, a custom farming operation in the DC region. Nazirahk Amen is a naturopathic doctor and oriental medicine practitioner in Takoma Park, MD and has a long time interest in growing organic nutrient dense foods and its effect on health. Nazirahk and Mchezaji Axum, Director of Urban Farming for the University of the District of Columbia College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Sciences (UDC CAUSES), have been working on a USDA NIFA Grant titled “Growing Nutrient Dense Rice using Biodegradable Mulch and Drip Irrigation”.   Whereas Next Step Produce transplants directly into bare ground then laying drip tape after the 3rd cultivation and weeding, this experiment utilizes a plastic layer and water wheel transplanting into the biodegradable mulch. Through this collaboration, Next Step Produce was able to increase yields significantly.

Upland rice production is very innovative in the US. In the world, Brazil is the main producer along with other South American nations and the highlands of Asia. Information surrounding techniques and methodology is not highly available. One of the main yield limiting problems identified on the Next Step Produce farm was water utilization. Water requirements of rice can vary significantly depending on soil type, crop management practices, cultivar selection, temperature and solar radiation.

Drought and uneven water distribution can greatly reduce yield and contribute to disease such as blast and blight. Rice is particularly sensitive to drought when it occurs during the reproductive period. Though rice can endure drought during the growth phase, even moderate drought stress from panicle development at the end of the growth phase through flowering can lead to significant yield reduction. Once this variable was addressed at Next Step Produce, yields of the primary field varieties increased sharply to within the expected range of upland systems. Perhaps the best method is to provide consistent ground saturation, but ensuring saturation during the reproductive phase should suffice when water is limited. With this in mind, the next factor to consider is variety. Commonly available cultivars such as Koshihikari have been adapted from paddy fields. Though a good producer of tasty rice, it has relatively low disease resistance. On the other hand, a traditional upland variety such as Duborskian, while having better disease resistance, shorter field time, and great taste is a relatively low tillering variety with lower yields.

This brings us to this project of performance trialing promising cultivars for the Mid-Atlantic. Cultivar selection is potentially the most important yield determiner made by a rice grower.   Short duration rice varieties such as Duborskian mature in 105 – 120 days. Long duration varieties can take up to 150 days to maturity. With frost dates of May 15th and Oct 15th in zone 7, long maturing varieties can be a gamble. Up to now most cultivars have been determined mostly by availability. Koshihikari is highly available. Next Step Produce trialed Carolina Gold, a long grain variety, in 2012. It did not make it to maturity before the frost that year.   In this performance trial, we chose 18 cultivars acquired through various avenues from hybridized dryland/upland cultivars to heirloom strains that are showing up again. The strategy is to start seed April 20th in starter trays for a late May transplanting. The goal is to get the transplants into the field as soon as the plugs can be pulled. Cultivar performance data include tillering capacity, lodging, plant height, grain yield, milling quality and taste.

Project Objectives:

For the 2015 growing season, we trialed 18 rice varieties on a ¼ acre test plot.   We had fewer seed of some varieties but collected 18 seed varieties, which is 8 more than originally planned. Beginning in late April, we began seeding 200 count cell trays for a mid-May transplanting. Individual plot sizes varied with seed availability and germination rates. Initially, we planned to transplant into bare ground with machine cultivation and hand weeding.   Due to concerns about heavy weed pressure, the system was switched to plastic with hand weeding. We used 60” beds with 4 rows and 7” inline spacing. Due to using plastic mulch beds, transplanting was done with a water wheel type transplanter instead of the carousel type transplanter. The plot was monitored and maintained. Three hand weedings were necessary throughout the season. Harvesting was done using a Massey Ferguson 8 plot combine.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Nazirahk Amen
  • Amanda Heinbaugh
  • Adam Mihalik


Materials and methods:

As mentioned above, we were able to trial more varieties than originally planned. The following list are all of the varieties we tested this year:

Seeded April 15

  • ZHE 733
  • GPNO 2947
  • Cadet
  • South River Duborskian
  • Charleston Gold
  • Carolina Gold
  • Blue Bonnet
  • Black Rice
  • Caffey (reseeded April 27 and 29)
  • Jasmine (reseeded April 27 and 29)
  • Dinorado Red (reseeded April 27 and 29)
  • Fedco Duborskian

Sri Lankan varieties seeded April 21

  • Attakory
  • AT 362
  • AT 406
  • BG 358

Chinese Upland varieties seeded April 29

  • HD 502
  • HD 297


The first twelve varieties were seeded on April 15. The Sri Lankan varieties (Attakory through BG 358) were seeded on April 21st. The remaining two Chinese HD upland varieties were seeded on April 29th. Due to poor germination, we re-seeded the black rice, Caffey, jasmine, and Dinorado varieites on April 27th & 29th. We used 200 cell seed trays and treated the seed with gibberellic acid.

Two tons of on-farm compost was incorporated into the trial plot with an Imants spader. We amended our original plan in consideration of the heavy weed pressure and laid plastic mulch. We used 60” beds with 4 rows and 7” inline spacing. With the use of plastic mulch, we used a water wheel transplanter instead of a carousel type.

Plant sap analysis tests were taken on June 29th and August 10th. We used plant sap analysis to give real time feedback on crop health. The test were supposed to give us data on plant health by providing nutrient values in both old and new leaves on the plants which gave us an understanding of plant nutrient uptake, soil health, and biological activity. The testing is relatively new and parameters for rice don’t yet exist. Though recommendations for nutrient adjustments were made based on the results of this testing, we are unsure if these adjustments impacted the crops in a cost effective manner in relationship to yield increases and do not recommend using this test method to other farmers at this time. Rice plants uptake most nutrients during the vegetative phase and it is unclear how any amendments may change nutrient uptake and availability. Compost tea and organic foliar nutrient sprays were applied based on Nic Ellis’, crop consultant, suggestions based on the results of the plant sap analysis (see UplandRiceReport_Nic_Ellis_March_1st_2015).   See the attached foliar application chart for our spray regimen. Due to an unfortunate computer crash, some of our data from the first part of the season was lost, but the chart is a good reflection of our nutrient application for the rice.

Foliar spray record Foliar spray record

Soil analysis was conducted in March 2015 through Advancing Eco-Agriculture (see attachment, Section II bottom was trial plot) and in May with Texas Plant & Soil lab.  The results were conflicting on what the soil was deficient in and the biological activity.  Prior testing results were also consulted and known nutritional needs of rice were considered to determine what nutrient deficiencies needed to be addressed. Additional testing was not done as planned due to staff shortages. Next Step Produce's practices center around healthy soil yields healthy plants.  This principle is behind the continuous focus to build up the soil through compost and cover crops.  Attached is Senate document 264 presented in 1936 addressing how the degradation of soil was leading to nutrient deficient crops and the effect on our health.  This is an issue that we are continuing to face today.  Irrometers were obtained later in the season and not used as extensively as we originally thought. Field notes were taken multiple times throughout the season in order to collect data on tillers, plant height, lodging, and the percentage of blank heads.

Harvesting of the rice was done starting September 13th, which the latest date of harvest being October 14th with the Massy 8 research plot combine. After harvesting, the grain was put through a seed cleaner and dried down to around 14%. The grain is stored in the cooler and milled on demand for wholesale orders and retail sales in order to maximize nutrient retention.

For the taste testing, we collaborated with the staff of Woodberry Kitchen, a hyper-locally grown restaurant in Baltimore, MD that has been using rice grown by Next Step Produce. The chefs prepared 15 trial varieties as well as the Koshihikari (which they are already serving) and the Hmong sticky. Each variety was served both boiled and steamed without salt. The restaurant used their standard tasting form with its staff to get feedback on variety, appearance, aroma, taste, and texture.

15MAY 26401-02.wrd

SOIL TEST March 2015 Logan Lab

Texas plant soil report May 5th 2015

UplandRiceReport Nic Ellis March 1st 2015










SARE Weather Data

SARE Rice Pics 1

SARE Rice Pics 4

SARE Rice Pics 2

SARE Rice Foliar Chart

SARE Rice Tasting

SARE Rice Pics 3


Research results and discussion:

Through interacting with a fellow farmer and crop advisors, overall rice crop yields on this farm increased dramatically. Previous yields averaged approximately 1500 pounds per acre. Nazirahk Amen through study, experiment, and travel helped recognize crucial components of the plant growth cycle and water management needs. Rice apparently can withstand early drought periods, but we now understand there are crucial periods in the plant growth cycle where decreased water availability and drought have irreversible consequences on yield. Poor water management accounted for low yield levels on this farm in previous years. Depending on the variety the period varies, but field saturation two weeks before flowering and through the next 30 days of the reproductive phase is necessary to protect against spikelet sterility which produces empty heads and resulting low yields.   Drought or lack of water during this period appears to have the largest impact on yield potential. This year, we experienced a late spring and wet early summer. Early varieties such as Duborskian, ZHE33, and GPNO297 completed their reproductive phase before the rains slowed. Other varieties just entering the reproductive phase as the rains ended were easily kept saturated with the farm’s overabundant supply of pond water this year. The abundant rainfall received this year should be considered in viewing the years’ results as longer maturing varieties may be more susceptible to drought damage when rainfall is not as abundant. On this farm, rice is only one of many crops and extended field saturation in late summer may not be possible in years with less rainfall.

Dryland rice growers expect about half the yield potential of paddy or flooded fields. In flooded systems, nitrogen is more difficult to manage, but the oxygen reduction that occurs when flooding a field balances pH and makes phosphorus available. This is not the case with dryland systems. This reduction reaction probably accounts for the higher yields of paddy systems. The challenge of dryland growers and organic growers in particular is how to mobilize these nutrients for plant availability. On this farm, the approach of increasing organic matter and supporting increased biological activity is taken.

SRI or System of Rice Intensifcation recommends the second or third leaf stage as the optimal time for transplanting.  Our experience of working with the 200 cell count trays is that they are not able to be pulled at that time.  We believe that using a paper pot transplanter would allow the plants to be transplanted earlier and promote better root development.  Unfortunately at this time, there are not paper pots approved for certified organic use so we are not able to test how that would affect overall tillering and yield. Field notes on the varieties are as follows:

Notes on Rice Varieties 1 Notes on Rice Varieties 1 Notes on Rice Variety trial - 2 Notes on Rice Variety trial - 2

Lastly, the results of the variety trials can be seen in the attached tables. The taller varieties produced higher yields. Blue Bonnet, a variety brought from Belize by Mennonites, yielded 4857 lbs/acre and appears to hull well and taste quite nice. Hmong Sticky, a Chinese glutenous variety, yielded 4694 lbs/acre, hulls nicely, and is great for all those sticky rice. GPNO 2947, a variety from Anna McClung at the USDA Rice Research Center, showed nice vigor and produced 4148 lbs/acre.

The shorter varieties yielded less but some show great promise. HD297, a Chinese hybrid dryland variety, produced 4001 lbs/acre. Sri Lankan variety, AT362, yielded 3753 lbs/acre.  South River Duborskian yielded a much smaller 2460 lbs/acre, but has a very short season and tastes great.

The rice tasting provided some outside input on the different rice varieties. In retrospect, we would make some key changes to how the reviewing was done. First and foremost would be to construct a form that leads to qualitative data.   Looking at the sampling of responses in the attached table, everything from taste to smell to texture led to a wide range of responses that are difficult to qualify which varieties are favored. One person might think a variety soft and the next hard. Preparation also is key. The Hmong sticky, one of top yielding varieties, was at first met with resistance due to its texture that limited its uses. The chefs at Woodberry discovered that by boiling it one part grain to seven parts water, they were able to remove the excess starch and were left with a rice that maintained individual grains with good flavor. The leftover starchy water is put to use in making soups and stews. Many tasters were not able to make it past the boiled sampling with so many varieties to taste. A handful of tasters did indicate which varieties were their favorite overall. These varieties were: GPNO 2947, Dinorado, BG 358, HD 502, and Blue Bonnet. Aside from our criteria of yield, disease resistance, and harvestability, the restaurant brought up a key point for marketability. The varieties such as Koshihikari and Hmong sticky that they have been working with have a name that reflects a story and its origins that they can use in describing dishes. Using a name like HD 502 or GPNO 2947 is harder to weave into a mouth-watering description of a dish. While we are thankful to have a staff of professional chefs that are willing to work with whatever is able to grow well, we would like to establish a set of criteria of characteristics that are desirable on the consumption side to have a clearer picture of what people look for in “good” rice.


Rice Variety taste results-1
Rice Variety taste results-1

Rice Variety taste results - 2
Rice Variety taste results - 2


Rice Data Collection 2015

SARE Rice Taste Testing

SARE Rice Tasting

Research conclusions:

This spring we have had a handful of farmers in Maryland and Virginia who attended either one of the workshops or presentations get seed from us to trial for the 2016 growing season.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We held two workshops regarding rice production. The first one was held at UDC’s Muirkirk Research Farm where Nazirahk Amen contract farms and focused more heavily on growing techniques, which their work has been centered on. Some of the trial varieties were also tried at this location. The second workshop was held at Next Step and covered harvesting and processing. We partnered with Future Harvest CASA, a local group that works to support sustainable agriculture practices, to put on the events and reach out to regional farmers who were interested in experimenting with growing rice. We also were part of a grain growing panel at their annual winter conference in January. In addition, Nazirahk Amen presented a rice workshop including variety trial information at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham, NC in November. The talk covered both lessons learned in growing, harvesting, processing, and information on varieties that were more promising for the region. Another presentation was given at the Virginia Association of Biological Farmer’s winter conference at the end of January.


Rice Data Collection Sheet

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

The work that we have begun in developing dryland rice growing practices for our region and trialing different varieties are of great benefit to both local growers and our region. By increasing the availability of locally grown grain, we are helping to increase the food security of our region as well as improving the quality and nutrient density of grains available for local consumption. We have been able to develop a good network with growers from New York to Louisiana that has allowed us access to different varieties in our quest to find ones that do well in our area and also taste great. This is just the foundation for continued work, as an accurate assessment of a variety’s success requires it to be grown out for multiple seasons to account for variables from year to year.

Future Recommendations

After an exciting performance trial year, what next? Just as in previous years, Next Step Produce will continue on farm trials. This year’s trials may have really been the first year of clear results.   For instance, GPNO 2947 had been in a previous trial on this farm and performed poorly, developing blast and blank heads or spikelet sterility. Much of this may be attributed now to drought or lack of irrigation during crucial periods of the reproductive phase. Or consider the Carolina Gold and other long grain cultivars and their lack of achieving maturity in previous trials. Can we attribute it to a great weather season, or is the earlier seeding and transplant date enough to consistently allow for maturity of long grain cultivars.   Another observation at Next Step Produce is that milling quality can vary year to year within the same cultivar. This may be attributed to multiple factors such as drought, nutrient management, or temperature.   It is very important to evaluate as many years of information as possible, especially when extreme weather conditions may have an adverse impact on certain cultivars in a particular year. Though the 2015 growing season was a very nice long mild season for rice production and climate change favors a longer growing season, that may not always be the case.   Data averaged over years and locations will provide a much more reliable database for evaluating rice performance for important factors such as tillering capacity, days to maturity, grain yield, and milling quality.

As important as cultivar performance trials is the work of developing a less labor intensive growing methods.   Rice is a much more labor and management intensive crop than other grains.  Nazirahk Amen of Purple Mountain Organics and Che Axum of UDC CAUSES are working on not only continuing performance trialing, but also experimenting with organic no till planting behind fall seeded cover crops with drought resistant upland cultivars that are being developed around the world to meet the growing climate change demands.

And lastly, the greatest boon to small scale grain production would be the development of local and regional grain cleaning and processing facilities. Whether developed through farmer collectives or government agencies, these facilities can only enhance local food security and make it much easier for small farms to participate in this growing trend. Growing grains as specialty crops vs. commodity crops and laying infrastructure to promote local cleaning and processing facilities is the biggest step that a community can take towards sustainability as it relates to grain production.



Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.