Rice has historically been grown in level fields surrounded by levees that are flooded with 5-8 inches of water. The seedlings are typically soaked and then dropped into the fields where they mature after four or five months.
Missouri is one of the first places to adopt a furrow-irrigated growing system. This involves building raised beds within fields, which appeals to farmers who need to conserve their labor costs.
According to Gene Stevens, a researcher of cropping systems at Fisher Delta Research Center in Portageville, the method works well for those who have a hard time finding workers.
“The main advantage of furrow-irrigated rice is that there’s less labor because you don’t have to build the levees up and knock them down,” said Stevens, an agronomy extension professor at the center. “Also, most of our rice is rotated with soybeans in alternating years.”
The disadvantages, Stevens said, have to do with weed and insect control. Furrow-irrigated rice is more vulnerable than conventional rice fields to billbugs, stinkbugs and a fungus called blast caused by windblown spores.
Still, furrow irrigation has taken off in the Bootheel region in southeast Missouri, home to exceptional soil conditions. Rice can’t be grown on lighter ground because it requires very heavy soil to help with water management.
The clay and silt soils make Missouri a competitive place to grow rice, said Jeff House, field specialist in agronomy for MU Extension in New Madrid County.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Missouri is one of six states, including Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, that make up 99% of all rice grown in the country.
Missouri currently has 224,000 acres planted in rice, and the total 2018 value of the state’s rice production was $179.4 million.
One lesson the researchers at the Fisher Delta Research Center have learned about growing rice is that flat beds with small widths produce higher yields.
Travis Jones, field specialist in agronomy for MU Extension in Stoddard County, said they have also found that furrow-irrigated rice is more susceptible to weed germination than conventionally flooded rice because it’s much harder for weeds to germinate in standing water.
“At least one if not two additional herbicide trips are made across furrow-irrigated rice when compared to flood rice and more residual herbicides are used,” he said.
But with careful management, solutions can be found to overcome most of the problems of growing rice in Missouri, Stevens said.
Finding these solutions means yield rates would besimilar to those of rice grown the conventional way. Stevens said they’re often not as high but sometimes they are actually higher.
“More and more each year I see farmers trying it out,” Jones. “As far as rice as a whole, we’re probably at our maximum.”
Southeast Missouri is a low-lying region that’s a part of the Southern alluvial Mississippi River Delta. In the early 20th century, a system of ditches, levees and canals were built to drain the uninhabitable land that was infested with mosquitoes and malaria.
This system, known as the Little River Drainage District, is the world’s largest man-made drainage effort.
“We have the ideal soil, infrastructure and transportation that we already utilize,” House said. “The only limiting factor is acreage.”
House said farmers are becoming more efficient at handling rice and the specialized equipment that comes along with it.
The abrasive crop requires equipment with a hardened interior to cut through its sandpaper-like texture. This process, House said, has been refined to where farmers know when they plant in April or May what they’ll harvest in September or October, though every year is different.
“We’re not like the rest of the state because this is all reclaimed swampland,” House said.