Exploring dryland rice production in the mid-Atlantic

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: rice


  • Crop Production: fertilizers

    Proposal summary:

    Demand for organic grains is increasing as the “locally grown” ”know your farmer” movement has communities striving towards greater sustainability. As growers are willing to invest in processing and milling equipment, a niche market has emerged where demand exceeds production. Rice is the world’s most common staple crop and traditional production methods demand more water than any other agricultural enterprise. As water becomes scarce in traditional growing areas such as California, organic farmers should be willing to explore how rice performs in a biologically rich farming system. Up to this point, all rice in the US has been grown in paddy systems. Worldwide dryland or upland systems have been limited to higher elevations with less water resources and generally produce significantly lower yields. In the face of increasing water scarcity, organizations such as the UN and IRRI have been encouraging farmers to decrease water usage and explore higher yielding varieties in dryland systems. On the US East Coast, suitable varieties have been identified both in the Northeast and Southeast regions for paddy production. Local experimentation with these varieties reveals further trials are needed.

     Proposed here is a twofold project: 1) Create basic parameters for growing rice in a dryland system in a biologically active organic system, and 2) Identify higher-yielding marketable varieties suitable to the Mid-Atlantic region.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Proposed solution

    We propose to continue on farm variety trials while expanding our understanding of soil fertility and plant health issues that have come up in the farm’s rice production system and to share our results with other farmers in the Mid-Atlantic region. We propose to trial 10 additional short and medium grain rice varieties that may be suitable to the Mid-Atlantic. Adding to GRIN’s data collection, we will put together information for each variety specific to growing in our region, including lodging, plant height, days to 50% flowering, yield, and any unique observations that may come up over the growing season. We propose to increase soil monitoring to understand how to adjust our system of rice production for increased yields. Monitoring would include performing soil, plant sap, and nutrient analysis at critical stages of growth that would allow environmental adjustments of soil nutrient and biology levels to optimize growth and minimize disease pressure. Other factors to monitor would include soil moisture, rainfall and climate. Our goal is to discern and establish viable varieties for the Mid-Atlantic while creating guidelines for soil fertility and crop management in dryland systems for this region.


    There is a dearth of rice variety research specific to the Mid-Altantic region. Small-scale grain production is on the upswing among organic farmers and adding specialty grains in with traditional specialty crops not only helps farmers diversify their income stream, but also aids in improving sustainability by improving soil health in a rotating system. For the last several years, we have embraced small-scale grain production on 12 acres of our 86 acre farm by growing heirloom wheat, rye, barley, oats, sorghum, and rice for the “locally grown” market.

    Our rice plot has averaged around one acre with average yield of 1500/lb acre, far below conventional paddy systems 6 – 9000 lb/acre yields. We have invested in small-scale grain processing equipment which allows us to successfully process and market grains to local restaurants and by direct retail sales at the farmers market. As maturing farmers who have industriously labored on an intensive market farm, the shifting of income to include grain sales is a promising sign that our farm can endure a reduction in labor intensive farming methods. We have been able to contract acres of grains to restaurants who are willing to pay a premium for our specialty grain products. This has shown us that farmers can grow grains for a livable wage and allows farmers in peri-urban environments to increase long term sustainability through local grain production. We have been growing dryland rice for four years with varying degrees of success. And while our customers have been willing to pay a premium price of $12/ pound retail and $8/pound wholesale, we hope to increase yield and lower prices through increased productivity.

    One of the main problems has been finding rice varieties that work well for the Mid-Atlantic region using dryland methods. Current small-scale rice research has been focused primarily in the Northeast and South. Between South Carolina and Vermont, there seems to be a dearth of valuable information about rice variety, climate, and other environmental factors influencing rice production specific to the Mid-Atlantic region. We have both independently and in  partnership trialed varieties recommended by rice researchers such as Anna McClung
    of the USDA National Rice Research Group, Susan McCouch of Cornell University, and the previously SARE funded Ecological Rice Growers in the Northeastern US. Unfortunately, most of the research on rice varieties is related to paddy rice and it appears that historically dryland and upland rice varieties have been adopted from paddy varieties. In 1994, a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations publication entitled “Improved Upland Rice Farming Systems” showed the US produced no dryland rice and urged world farmers in
    upland growing areas to reduce traditional varieties and trial newer more productive paddy varieties in their fields to maximize yield.

    In 2014, eighteen rice varieties were trialed on our farm in collaboration with the work of the
    Ecological Rice Growers. This experience has demonstrated a two fold dilemma of improving dryland growing conditions and continuing variety trials.

    Previous work

    The Akaogi Farm in Vermont is well known for their work to develop and promote rice production in the Northeast. They have received funding through SARE for two different projects, one called “Rice Growing Manual for the Northeast”2 and the other “Introducing Rice as a Commercial Crop to the Northeastern U.S.”1 Their first project produced a rice growing manual. In their second project, they were experimenting with a few strains in order to get a high level of production. While the Akaogis have made great contribution to inspiring others to start growing rice and to share their knowledge, they are also growing in paddies versus upland. Their climate and growing practices are significantly different enough from us that we have not had success with many varietiesrecommended through their work.

    In 2012, Southern SARE funded a research and education project called “Improving Soil Quality to Increase Yield and Reduce Diseases in Organic Rice Production”5. This project compared disease, yield, and milling quality differences between plots grown with rye, clover, or left fallow. In addition, they used one location in Texas and one in South Carolina to determine if the results were replicable in different areas. Their studies found that adding additional nitrogen did not increase the yield significantly. They also found that while clover helped to reduce brown spot especially in susceptible varieties, rye seemed to improve the milling quality. Overall, the different cover crops did not seem to significantly impact yield. Unlike us, they were growing rice in flooded plots.

    We would like to continue to explore this area as it pertains to upland rice production and also based on our climate, which is somewhere between the two major centers of rice research in the Northeast and the South. Susan McCouch, of Cornell University, has extensively researched rice diversity and studying how traits from wild strains of rice can be used to help increase the productivity of modern rice varieties4. Ms. McCouch has worked with the Akaogis and farmers around the world to test growing different varieties to help determine their strengths and weaknesses under today’s growing conditions. Blue Moon Acres in New Jersey and The Urban Farm at Randall’s Island are the two locations closest to us that we know of working with McCouch. Again, our experience growing many of the recommended varieties has not been viable and we would like to source different varieties to experiment with.

    In Moncure, NC, Jason and Haruka Oatis are experimenting with successfully growing rice on a small scale following Masanobu Fukuoka’s principles11. They flood during the first two weeks after planting, and then rely on rainfall and drip irrigation. They used white clover as a perennial cover crop to reduce weed pressure with mixed results. Their production levels do not match conventionally grown rice practices, but they have developed a niche market that allows them to sell their entire crop at a high market price of $16/lb. While this certainly makes rice an attractive crop for farmers to include, improving growing practices and finding the right variety will help to increase productivity levels and make it more affordable, which in turn will expand the market.

    Ben Falk, in Moretown, VT, received a SARE grant to study using various levels of water (flooded, saturated, and low, recording weather conditions, and collecting data on how successful the crops were under these variables on two farms3. Their harvest estimates were about 2500 lbs/acre, which is significantly higher than what we have accomplished, but also a lot less than what the Akaogis have reported harvesting from their paddies. Falk addressed how rice paddies contribute to global warming through methane production and encouraged the development of other weed control strategies to encourage farmers to use better water usage practices as they start growing rice. He called for more research in their region on the use of cover crops and the development of mechanical weeding tools to address this problem.

    Purple Mountain Organics received a 3 year USDA Specialty Crop Research Grant through the University of DC to experiment with growing dryland rice on their Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, MD. They are growing Koshihikari and Duborskian varieties using drip irrigation and SRI spacing on biodegradable mulch. They‘ve traveled to LSU Rice Research Station, attended the Northeast Rice Conference and have helped to open up our network. They are very interested in helping us explore potential varieties for the Mid-Atlantic and establish guidelines for dryland production.

    Methods and measurements

    Variety Selection

    We propose to trial ten varieties on a 1⁄4 acre test plot.

    Varieties and rationale:

    1. Hmong Sticky – Short grain previously trialed with promising results, only variety that did not succumb to blast in 2014 trial.

    2. Duborskian - Short grain Russian dryland variety grown locally in 2014 by Purple Mountain Organics. Harvested early, they observed significant rattooning with small second harvest.

    3. Caffey - Kurt Unkel of Cajun Grain in Kinder, LA reported good results using this high-yielding medium grain clearfield variety developed at LSU.

    4. Koshihikari – Variety we and Purple Mountain grew successfully in 2014. Look to further develop to increase yield.

    5. GPNO 2947 - Later maturing short grain variety that showed some promise in our 2014 trials. McClung reported excellent yield and recommends further trials.

     6. Zhe 733 – A very early, high yielding variety however eating quality is reportedly not as good.

    7. Cadet – An extremely early variety recommended by McClung, with decent yield and good cooking quality.

    8. China Black Rice- A medium grain specialty rice that has high market potential.

    9. Titanio – a medium grain variety noted by McClung to have good yield.

    10. Jazz Man Jasmine –another LSU developed variety grown by Unkel. A popular rice variety with very good marketability.

    Seedling and Soil Prep

    Seedlings will be sown following Cornell greenhouse guidelines4 at the beginning of April in 200 cell trays for early May planting. Plants will be treated with gibberellic acid to stimulate seedling growth6. The test plot is currently in a winter cover crop consisting of rye, crimson clover, Austrian winter peas, and daikon. It will be flailed and amended with 500 lbs/acre on-farm compost evenly incorporated in top 8” with an Imants spader.

    Layout, Transplanting and Weeding

    Plant spacing will be 4” interplant spacing with 20” row spacing on 64” bed centers. We will have ten 100’ beds each containing 900 transplants.

    Transplanting will be performed using a carousel type transplanter. Cultivation is done using mechanical basket weeder, weeding twice before laying drip tape at 3 inches. This depth allows additional cultivation if necessary without destroying the irrigation system. In-row weeding will be performed by hand as necessary.

    Plant Nutrition and Critical Stages of Influence

    With rice production, the critical stages of monitoring are pre-planting, pre-tillering, pre-panicle initiation, and pre-milk stages10. In previous rice trials, our approach was focused primarily on preseason soil preparation without in season foliar applications as we do with our production fields. While pre-planting and pre-tillering stages are determined by soil quality in the early stage of growth, panicle initiation and milk stages can be supported dynamically through plant sap analysis and foliar applications of minerals. We use Advancing Eco Agriculture products with success based on crop consultant recommendations. Yacov Assa, technical advisor, has a lot of experience with rice and is committed to helping us identify these stages as they occur.

    Plant sap analysis

     Plant sap analysis done by Crop Health Laboratories (CHL) of Bellville, Ohio provides nutrient content levels of plants before plants assimilate them. Potential nutrient deficiencies can thereby be identified prior to occurrence and more quickly than with tissue sampling12. Insight into nutrient uptake allows for quick responses9. Nic Ellis MS, PhD, independent crop consultant and CHL affiliate, will interpret the results and develop a nutrient plan for foliar application to all varieties. This approach will work towards establishing an initial data-based nutrient management plan for dryland rice in the Mid-Atlantic region.

    Each trial variety will be sampled approximately 14-21 days before panicle initiation stage and again 14-21 before milk stage of development for a total of twenty tests. Foliar application will take place 3-7 days before these two stages.

    Soil Analysis

    Soil analysis will be performed before planting to determine a nutrient amendment plan. Additionally, a phospholipid-fatty acid (PLFA) analysis7 (Ward Laboratories, Kearney, NE) will be conducted Pre and post season to quantify changes in soil biology. We will also do a Haney Test to determine the amount of organic nitrogen in the soil and get a “soil health” score.

    Soil Moisture, Rainfall, and Drip

    Two sets of 6” and 12” irrometers will be placed at each end of the level test plot to determine soil moisture levels.

    A weather station will monitor rainfall levels.

    Drip totals will be calculated throughout trial.


    With dryland rice, heavy plant tillering is preferred as the stooling effect makes for a strong stand, which reduces lodging and increases yield. Tillering is determined genetically and influenced by variables such as nutrient and water availability and is also an indicator of general plant health13. Fifty percent of nutrient uptake should occur during tillering.

    Panicle Initiation

    Panicle development begins 45 – 55 days after transplanting after planting with panicle initiation occurring about a week later. Panicle initiation is a clear indicator the plant has moved into its reproductive stage and usually occurs 35 to 40 days before heading. A deficiency of both nutrient and water uptake can greatly delay panicle initiation and extend days to maturity.

    Days to 50% Heading

    Comparing this information with existing averages will allow us to understand the effect of dryland conditions on maturity. Flowering is delayed in dry conditions, which can then affect both yield and days to maturity.

    Plant Height

    Comparing plant height to known data for each variety provides insight into the effects of dryland methods. Decreased plant height is associated with a decrease in spikelets, hence lowering yields.


    Lodging leads to a yield reduction. Factors such as genetics, nutrient deficiencies, water levels, wind, excess nitrogen can lead to lodging.

    Seed Head Development

    High percentages of blanks has been common in our dryland field trials. By monitoring nutrient levels, water use, and rainfall, we can better determine influencing factors.

    Days to Maturity

    This data will be used both as measure of effect of dryland methods and for determining future feasibility for the Mid-Atlantic.


    Is it worthwhile to grow?


    A very subjective measurement but important in determining marketability

    Project timetablee

    Timeline 2015

    Pulling of soil sample - 1 hour Heinz

    March 31st.

    Seed Trays: Adam, Amanda, Heinz, Nazirahk

    (6) 200 cell trays of each variety: 4-6 hours

     March 31st – May 15th

    Seedling care and maintenance 1 hr daily: Heinz, Adam,

    April – harvest

    Facebook postings following development of trials – 30 min/ week ~12 hrs totall Amanda


    PLFA & Haney test Soil Sampling Heinz 1 hour

    April 22nd

    Flail Cover Crop: Heinz .5 hr

     Add compost and soil amendments and spade: Heinz 4hrs

    May 15th – harvest

    Irrigation/watering field ~3.5hrs/wk = ~63 hrs Adam

     May 12th

    Transplant Heinz, Adam, Nazirahk, Amanda, 4- 6hrs

    May 15th - ~ July 7th

    Collect Tillering data Amanda 1-2 hrs/wk

    June 7th

    Pre-panicle initiation spray Heinz 2hrs

    June 11th

    Collect sap analysis samples pre-panicle initiation. Amanda 3 hrs

    ~June 14th

    Yacov visit - 2hrs. Also present, Heinz, Nazirahk, Amanda Identifying panicle initiation in field.

    ~June 21th

    Collect sap analysis pre-milk stage Amanda 3 hrs

    Yacov Visit 1hr. Also present, Heinz, Nazirahk, Amanda

    ~July 1- Aug15

    Observe Days to 50% each variety Amanda 2 hrs/wk

    ~July 1st

    Pre-Milk stage spray Heinz 2 hrs

    July 5 – August 5

    Workshop advertising and preparation - 6 hrs Amanda, Nazirahk

    August 5th

    Rice workshop and tour 9-12pm

    Heinz, Adam, Nazirahk, Amanda – 5 hrs for prep/take down August 21 – November 30

    Harvest 1.5 hrs/variety = 15 hours Heinz, Nazirahk

    August 21- October 21st

    Data collection on lodging, days to maturity, plant height, and yield 1.5 hrs/variety = 15 hrs


    August 21 to November

    Drying, Cleaning, and Hulling

    30 hours (3 hours for each variety) 2 people at a time (Heinz, Adam, Nazirahk, Amanda)

    October 22nd

    PLFA & Haney test Soil Sampling Heinz 1 hr


    Taste test – prep and event 3 hrs Heinz, Nazirahk, Amanda, Adam

    Survey review – 1 hr Amanda

    Trial Summary Sheet for handout – 1 hr Amanda

    Winter 2015-2016

    Create presentation of our results Heinz, Nazirahk – 3 hrs Present at 2 regional winter farm conferences - 2 hrs Heinz, Nazirahk

    Outreach plan

    Next Step Produce is at a prominent farmer’s market in DC, which has allowed them to develop a reputation for high quality produce and are well-respected in the “locally grown” market and farming community. We plan to hold an on-site farm workshop so that we can share with others the basics of getting set up for growing rice and the results up to that point. We will distribute blank data collection charts to offer a standard format for regional data and collect contact information so that we can share our final results with attendees. We will also hold a small taste testing event in November to help determine which varieties hold the highest market potential. We will ask attendees to rate taste and texture to rank the varieties.

    Purple Mountain is both a farm and garden supply company and a provider of contract farm services. This has allowed them to develop a network with the local and regional farm community. They frequent regional farm shows such as VABF, PASA, NOFA-NY, CFSA, and Rooting DC to sell books and tools. Nazirahk also regularly gives talks at various conferences. Our goal is to present at a minimum of two conferences to share the results of our project. We will provide an informational sheet about the varieties we trial. In addition, attending conferences over the years has allowed them to develop a social network through Facebook. Purple Mountain plans to use this to follow the rice project over the growing season.

    Farm Description

    Next Step Produce is an 86 acre certified organic farm started in 2000 that is operated by Heinz Thomet, a full time and lifelong farmer, and Gabrielle Lajoie, who has over sixteen years of farming experience. We currently offer a wide range of vegetables and fruits, from the common staples to more unique items such as ginger, cucuzza, grape kiwis, and bitter melon. In addition, we have been expanding our production to grains, including rye, barley, oats, sorghum, bread and pastry wheat varieties, and rice. Eighty percent of the farm’s $300,000 annual income comes from a high volume farmer’s market, with the rest coming from local restaurants and other wholesale accounts. Growing grains is allowing us to have further crop diversification promoting a healthier, more sustainable farm system and also helps promote our goal of locally grown, nutrient dense foods. Rice is particularly important because it is such a commonly eaten grain. While we have had some success with growing rice, we are not even close to approaching the potential yield and are looking for support to further develop our region’s and our own knowledge bank.

    Purple Mountain Organics shares our same mission and has experimented with growing rice as well. We plan to collaborate to share the workload and further build our knowledge about rice. We will work with Yacov Assa, lab director of UDC, who has previous experience at University of California Davis with rice experimentation, to share his knowledge of nutrient needs and disease.

    Nic Ellis of Keystone Bio Ag will provide his expertise in interpreting soil and plant sap analysis results. We currently own many essential pieces of equipment, including cleaning, hulling, and milling equipment. Purple Mountain Organics has a Massy 8 combine that we will use for harvest.

    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.