Vermont’s Newest Grain?
Putney farmers experiment with growing rice
Written onMarch 01 , 2009
People are often surprised to hear that rice can be grown in Vermont. After all, this grass is known as a tropical plant. But cultivated rice, first domesticated 6,000 years ago, is divided into two subspecies: O. sativa ‘indica,’ which is the long–grain type (such as jasmine or basmati) grown in tropical southern regions, and O. sativa ‘japonica,’ which is a shorter, rounder grain that is more cold tolerant. Japonica rice has been grown in Japan, of course, but also in more surprising temperate climates, such as the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Romania.
Now, in Vermont, Linda and Takeshi Akaogi are experimenting with growing rice on their small farm in Putney. In March 2008, they were awarded a grant to evaluate the viability of rice production in the Northeast and to create a supply of seed for other interested farmers. The goal of their “Northern Rice Project” is to introduce rice as a commercial crop to this region.
The Akaogis’ first attempt to grow rice was in 2006. The plants grew, but did not produce any viable seed. In 2007, they had better luck. In just a 25' x 25' paddy, they grew and evaluated 21 different varieties and by season’s end identified six varieties that produced seed. This past year they expanded their growing area to 4,320 square feet and evaluated 30 varieties for seed production. Of these 30 varieties, 25 were found to produce seed.
When evaluating the quality of the varieties that produce seed, several criteria are used for selection, with date to maturity/harvest being the most important. Another factor is resistance to both disease and lodging. Takeshi says once varieties are found that meet these criteria, they will then select for yield as well as taste. The Akaogis have already connected with Susan McCouch and Gen Fumio Onishi of Cornell University, who specialize in rice breeding.
To grow their rice, Linda and Takeshi constructed a rice paddy that is 6–8 inches deep and allows for controlled flooding. Nearby is a reservoir constructed for water storage and heating. Cold water comes into the reservoir from a nearby brook and is naturally heated before entering the paddy.
In April, seeds are soaked for 10 days at 50 degrees and then planted in plug flats. The plants are transplanted into the paddy by mid–May, about a month after seeding in the greenhouse. When transplanted, the tender plant only has one shoot, so it’s important that there be warm water in the paddy. Linda and Takeshi routinely monitor the temperatures of the water and soil in the paddy to ensure that growing conditions are optimal. The water level in the paddy must be half the height of the plant.
By June, the number of stems per plant increases significantly and the plants are much taller. In July, some varieties begin to head out and start producing grain, with September being the month of harvest. Since the Akaogis’ production is still on a fairly small scale, all the rice has been harvested by hand. To do this, plants are bundled, dried, threshed, and then later de–hulled.
So what are the requirements to grow rice? First, the soil must have the ability to hold water, and because of its need for water, rice must be grown in an area that has a good watershed with an abundance of water. Second, the crop needs a certain accumulation of heat throughout the growing season; to further evaluate this, Linda and Takeshi have been collecting accurate weather information for the past year.
The Akaogis’ farm is located in southeast Vermont at 900 feet above sea level. Due to its altitude, the farm may have one of the coldest climates in Vermont for the production of rice. Linda and Takeshi believe that rice grown in the lower–lying Champlain Valley region may do well given that area’s longer growing season. However, trials are needed at other locations to compare. This past year, several individuals grew rice plants in buckets at various locations around Vermont. The participants monitored growth and collected data throughout the season. This information will help determine potential growing areas in the state.
There may also be potential for rice to be grown on marginal land with poor drainage—although this does not mean wetland areas. Linda and Takeshi have stressed that wetlands need protection and are not suitable for rice production because the amount of water flowing in and out of them cannot be controlled. On the other hand, there is plenty of agricultural land in Vermont considered marginal. Many wet fields are already being cropped for hay, for example.
Linda and Takeshi see a lot of potential for rice production in Vermont. Besides transforming marginal land into productive paddies, farmers could recycle wastewater from their operations—such as wash water from vegetable production—and use it for irrigating a rice paddy. Rice paddies on dairy farms could purify water running off from the barnyard, and remove nutrients before they enter a waterway.
In addition, the Akaogis have already observed five species of frogs and three species of dragonflies that have come to reside in their paddy, indicating that rice paddies could benefit the biological landscape.
Rice production would also benefit the greater Vermont community by increasing the diversity of agricultural products available here. Vermont–grown rice would create a niche market for farmers while increasing our self–sufficiency. And in contrast to organic California rice, Vermont rice would be organic and local.
Photo by Cheryl Bruce