In his new position as director of the Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center in Poinsett County, Tim Burcham wants to help improve production of Arkansas' top crop.
He also gets to play in the dirt.
On Monday Burcham was named director of the center, to be built on Highway 1 near Harrisburg, in the heart of Arkansas rice country. He was formerly dean of the Agriculture College at Arkansas State University with a joint appointment with the University of Arkansas System of Division of Agriculture.
"Certainly the facility that we're constructing there would allow us to implement a wide range of production practices," said Burcham, who will assume his new job Aug. 1 and came to ASU from the University of Tennessee-Martin in 2013.
The center will be built on 641 acres in Poinsett County and be financed by gifts that include $4 million from the Arkansas Rice Promotion Board for the land. The division is working on two more gifts to fund operation, equipment and construction and an endowment to pay for base operation costs.
Burcham will oversee construction of the center and is tasked with developing its master plan, which will include researching the area's unique soils and an education component.
The Division of Agriculture currently conducts research at the Rice Research and Extension Center in Stuttgart and at the Northeast Research and Extension Center in Keiser, where the mixed and clay soils differ from the lighter mixed soils in Poinsett County.
"This would give us a great opportunity to test those varieties that are being developed in different soil types that are predominant in that particular region, which is a highly productive rice production region there," Burcham said of the Delta.
More than 60 percent of Arkansas rice production is in northeast Arkansas and the state is the nation's leading rice grower, producing more than 50 percent of the crop. In 2016, Arkansas harvested 1.52 million acres of rice with a state average yield of 6,920 pounds an acre. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the farm value of production for rice in Arkansas was $995.2 million.
Burcham sees the research center as a nexus of research, technology and education. He envisions educational outreach for all ages; application of technology that could include drones, automation systems and robotics; big data set analytics and production practices that include row rice and alternate wetting and drying.
Water management is critical to rice production. The research center will have a surface water irrigation system and Burcham discussed using surface and groundwater in testing trials.
"My vision — I haven't even started the job yet — but certainly my vision here is for us to complement the other activities that we already have going on now within the division, particularly in the Delta as it relates to rice," Burcham said.
Burcham earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in agricultural engineering from Mississippi State University and his Ph.D. in agricultural engineering from Clemson University. Before his appointment at ASU, he held teaching, research or extension positions at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Mississippi State University and UT-Martin.
A registered professional engineer in Arkansas and Mississippi, Burcham has been involved in a number of consulting roles within the agriculture industry as well as well as several leadership positions.
He said he and his wife Joan have developed an affinity for the northeast Arkansas region and its farmers in his six years at ASU, and he touted the potential economic benefit of having researchers, staff and other employees manning the new research center.
"When I'm around people that have a similar passion I really get excited about that," he said. "So when you look at this opportunity you think about the impact that this is going to have for northeast Arkansas. We're talking a multimillion-dollar investment in this community."
With the University of Arkansas System of Division of Agriculture, Arkansas State with its College of Agriculture and Biosciences Institute and now the planned research center in Poinsett County, the region has a "trifecta" of cooperation in the study of rice, Burcham said.
"It can't get any better than that," he said.
The coordination, research and the hard work of the farmers, scientists and innovators underscore a commitment to keep Arkansas among the world's top rice producers Burcham said.
He didn't specifically discuss the ongoing trade wars with China and other nations, some of whom have placed retaliatory tariffs on rice, but Burcham said the collaboration and innovation within the Arkansas rice industry will help it persevere through downturns and economic uncertainty.
Burcham said facilities like the new research center are "proof of their commitment to the fact that we're going to remain competitive in the worldwide market of rice production."