UAEX's Alton Johnson Sees Rice Up to the Challenge from Climate Change

Alton Johnson took over as director of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Rice Research & Extension Center in Stuttgart on Sept. 1. From 2016 to 2020, he served as both dean of the College of Science & Engineering and director of the 1890 Land Grant Program at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Johnson received certification in leadership from the Leadership for the 21st Century program administered by the Fanning Institute and a certificate of achievement in leadership excellence from the American Management Association.
Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in general agriculture from the University of Liberia in Monrovia, a master’s in agronomy from Mississippi State University in Starkville and a Ph.D. in agronomy from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He is a graduate of the Institute of Management & Leadership in Education at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He also received Strategic Leadership certification from the Harvard University Extension School.

What is the role of the Rice Research & Extension Center in Stuttgart?

The Rice Research & Extension Center investigates, validates and disseminates the best practices for sustainable rice production for Arkansas farmers. Our research is primarily field-oriented, problem-solving and applied.

How can the center help rice growers in Arkansas deal with a changing climate and an increasing number of extreme weather events?

The University of Arkansas is the land grant and flagship university of the state of Arkansas. Our scientists are researching extreme weather events that affect us all, specifically our farming community. The Rice Research & Extension Center works with the appropriate departments and colleges at the University of Arkansas, partnering universities and federal, private and international organizations to find solutions to these issues. Humankind has learned to adapt throughout its existence. I am certain that we will find ways to adapt and develop rice varieties that will help our growers. Research of this nature is ongoing at the center.

Can you tell us a little about precision farming technologies and how they’ve changed how rice is grown in this country?

By definition, precision agriculture is a management strategy that gathers, processes and analyzes temporal, spatial and individual data and combines it with other information to support management decisions according to estimated variability for improved resource use efficiency, productivity, quality, profitability and sustainability of agricultural production. The technologies associated with precision farming vary and are improving constantly.

I remember advising farmers to irrigate crops based on canopy temperature readings that indicated the onset of stress. A grower had to physically go to the field to take those readings using infrared thermometers. Now, telemetry is used through applications downloaded on a smartphone.

What drew you to this line of work?

As a young man, my interest was to get an education and help farmers. My parents were rice, sugar cane and natural rubber tree growers. I saw the hardships they experienced on their farmstead.