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Rice Quality Concerns Create Hurdles For Industry

4 min read

Jim Mead, owner of Delta Grains, a seed and grain brokerage business near Jonesboro, was part of the vanguard in seed technology. In the 1980s, he was an integral part of Eagle Seed Co. in Weiner, a small but innovative company that developed new rice and soybean varieties. Now, he views the seed business from both sides.

He doesn’t like some of what he sees.

“Back in the day, 120-bushel [to the acre] rice was good. Today, we are 160-bushel farmers, but we also hit a plateau here,” he said. “Starting in 2006 with Bayer [Crop Science], that was the downfall of U.S. rice. The quality was starting to decrease.”

In 2006, it became known that Bayer, one of the major seed players, had allowed genetically modified (GMO) rice to get into the state’s rice seed stock. GMO crops are not welcome in many markets, and the ripple effects from the Bayer incident reached far beyond the state’s borders, ultimately leading to lawsuits settled for hundreds of millions of dollars.

But beyond the Bayer situation, Mead said the state’s rice industry faces large hurdles, many of them self-inflicted.

He recounted how seed varieties have forfeited milling quality for short-growing season traits.

For many years, Weiner has hosted the Arkansas Rice Festival on the second weekend in October. A generation ago, many farmers could not attend because they were still harvesting their crop. That’s not true today.

“Breeders started focusing on early, early high-yield, and now, if you are not finished cutting by the Rice Festival, you are not a very good farmer,” Mead said.

“Breeders have gotten the yield up. They have gotten the earliness in there, but now we have a quality issue. We used to be known as the No. 1 quality rice in the world. Now, we can’t hardly give it away. We just don’t have the quality anymore that we used to have. We are not known as the quality-producing country anymore.”

That’s not a sentiment likely to find its way into rice marketing materials, but increasingly industry trade groups are acknowledging the issue.

“U.S. Long-Grain Rice Industry: At a Crucial Crossroads” by Karen Ott Mayer delves in depth into the quality issues facing the nation’s rice industry and the international competitors filling that void.

Underlining the importance of the subject, the piece is found on www.usriceproducers.com, not exactly an outfit that benefits from U.S. rice defects. Dating to 2013, Delta Farm Press, arguably agriculture’s most prominent voice, has raised alarms regarding quality issues, too.

How important is quality to rice buyers? Some portions of the rice crop won’t even suffice for pet food producers. “Stained” rice — kernels darkened by improper storage temperatures — are unsuitable for pet food nowadays.

“Now, they have gotten so picky that stained rice won’t work on the pet food market. We are really to the point where you better not mess your rice up anymore,” Mead said.

While the United States was the top rice-exporting nation in years past, other nations such as Thailand, Vietnam, India and even Pakistan have surpassed U.S. exports.

Part of the problem with U.S. rice is that for every advantage of a rice variety developed specifically for a built-in trait, there is a disadvantage. A variety might increase yield, but that variety might not “mill” well, meaning that the kernels easily break into pieces.

Many other rice-growing nations do not raise hybrid rice varieties. Many rice-exporting nations almost exclusively grow one variety that is popular in a particular export market.

Short growing season rice varieties highlight the pro/con debate. Rice that matures early in the fall is less likely to still be in the field when winds and heavy rain could push down the plants and reduce yields. However, rice that matures too quickly can be too brittle and not mill well.

“People are harvesting in late August. They are having to salt it because it is not getting ready fast enough. Then, the quality falls even more,” Mead said.

“You have to let it temper in the field. In-the-field tempering is better than in the grain bin. The rice just wants to shatter.”

Mead suggested that U.S. rice consumption is increasing, if for no other reason than it is a filling commodity.

“Rice will eventually be our staple food before it’s over with,” he said. “We are up to probably 75 percent domestic use. That used to be 50 percent. We need the extra yield because we are using so much more domestically.”

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