Exploring dryland rice production in the mid-Atlantic

2015 Annual 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

Exploring dryland rice production in the mid-Atlantic


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. Nineteen varieties were trialed this season with GRIN data collected including tillering, plant height, lodging, percentage of empty heads, yield, and harvest date. 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 to dramatically increase on farm yields from previous seasons and identify promising varieties with yields consistent with standard yield expectations for a dryland system. Heinz Thomet (farm owner) of Next Step Produce has been growing and trialing rice since 2010 and has successfully marketed it as a specialty crop. Nazirahk Amen (contract farmer) operates Purple Mountain Organics and has worked with UDC CAUSES at their Muirkirk Research Farm on a rice research project. Along with farm assistants, Amanda Heinbaugh and Adam Mihalik, an experimental plot was established, maintained, monitored, and harvested. Nic Ellis (crop consultant) and Yacov Assa (technical director) advised on soil fertility and plant health.

Objectives/Performance Targets

For the 2015 rowing 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. Soil samples were taken and recommendations received based on results.  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.


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.

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. 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, suggestion based on the results of the plant sap analysis.

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 specialty dishes. GPNO297, 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. A rice taste sampling will be held to get feedback from local chefs in order to get an idea of what they would be interested in, what they are looking for in a locally grown rice.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

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 has been what their work has centered on. Some of the trial varieties were also tried at this location. A total of twenty-five people attended the workshop, including seven beginning farmers. The second workshop was held at Next Step and covered harvesting and processing. Fifteen people were at the second workshop, nine of which were beginning farmers. 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. 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 is scheduled at the Virginia Association of Biological Farmer’s winter conference at the end of January.


Amanda Heinbaugh

farm assistant
7120 Carrol Avenue
Takoma Park, MD 20912
Office Phone: 2403935951
Adam Mihalik

farm assistant
Next Step Produce
10615 Benton Road
Newburg, MD 20664-2405
Office Phone: 4172942952
Nazirahk Amen

Fellow farmer
7120 Carrol Avenue
Takoma Park, MD 20912
Office Phone: 3018912488
Website: http://www.purpletools.net/