Is rice the ‘climate-change crop’ the Northeast needs?

by Liz Susman Karp

Published: 9/14/23, Last updated: 9/14/23

Rice growing in the U.S. is today mostly associated with Arkansas or California, and historically, the Lowcountry and Mississippi Delta. But this summer, Cornell Cooperative Extension launched what it hopes will be a long-term project to develop a regional rice growing system in the Northeast.

“We wanted to identify possible flood-tolerant crops for our farmers,” said Cornell professor Jenny Kao-Kniffin, who is overseeing the project. Over the past decade, intense precipitation events have caused disastrous consequences for farmers around the region. Rice is flood-tolerant but doesn’t require flooding conditions, and the grain is just as profitable on the East Coast as other high-value crops that don’t fare as well in the event of an extreme downpour. The Cornell initiative brings agronomy, education and infrastructure for scalability under one umbrella to support small-scale growers — joining a small group of farmers and academics in the region who are studying this cereal to optimize land affected by climate change, support farmers and foster local, resilient crops, crop diversity and a healthy, flavorful food supply.

Building this new system, and particularly in a new area, presents an opportunity to address problems in the industry. Most rice-breeding work over the centuries has been devoted to the varieties traditionally grown in rice paddies, flooded fields that create conditions for greenhouse gas-emitting bacteria; rice production is estimated to be responsible for 12 percent of total methane emissions globally. Rice in flooded fields will also more readily absorb naturally occurring arsenic, an issue that will be exacerbated by warmer temperatures. Some growers in the Northeast are experimenting with reducing the climate impacts of the paddy system. Others, since rice can be grown without flooding, are turning their focus to “upland” rice varieties — which can be planted in rows and grown with a combination of rain and irrigation, known as “dryland growing” in the world of rice. Cornell is trialing 11 varieties from Japan, China and unconfirmed origin both in paddies and in raised beds.

Cornell professor Susan McCouch, a plant geneticist and rice expert who is assisting on the project, sees particular potential in upstate New York, where the university is located; she ultimately aspires to make rice growing a major economic activity for the region, akin to how the wine and brewing industries have developed (a process in which Cornell was similarly involved). This will take time: She estimates 10 years to increase the number of rice farmers and availability of information, and 20 to breed rice well-adapted to the region and to see the industry become economically important.

Over the years, McCouch has worked with Glenn Roberts, the founder of artisan grain company Anson Mills, who through his research efforts has plenty of wisdom to share. Intriguingly, he says rice growing may not be entirely new to the Northeast. Responsible for reviving Carolina Gold rice and other notable southern heirloom grains, Roberts recalls stories he’s heard while working on the ground in the South Carolina Lowcountry — potentially oral history that’s been lost to time. He says people have told him that rice was grown on Martha’s Vineyard in the 18th and 19th centuries, for use for medicinal purposes on whaling ships, by communities who escaped from slavery in South Carolina and headed north to hide in the Wampanoag territory, though few if any official records exist. (He also cites current rice growing efforts underway on the Vineyard.)

However, a niche regional rice movement has been germinating for several decades, though growth has been piecemeal. In the early 1980s, Christian Elwell, founder of South River Miso Company in Conway, Massachusetts, started growing Duborskian rice — a hardy Ukrainian variety — using dryland methods, for use in his products. He switched to paddy production in 2008 after seeing the success of Takeshi and Linda Akaogi on their Westminster, Vermont property. The Akaogis had written a manual of their work and connected with McCouch, who secured funding for conferences at their farm. Connections were made, information shared. Today, close to a dozen farmers in the Northeast are producing rice, adapting and implementing an assortment of approaches.

Erik Andrus of Boundbrook Farm in Vergennes, Vermont, was an early adopter in the U.S. of the aigamo method, a Japanese style of rice farming in which ducks are introduced to the rice paddies. With his farmland too wet for successful wheat production, Andrus, who had lived in northern Japan and seen the Japanese approach to growing rice in a cold climate, turned to rice farming in 2010. It took seven years — in semiaquatic agriculture, the farmer must learn how to manage not just the soil, but the soil and water together — plus many varietal trials, a well-worn English translation of “The Power of Duck” and a visit to Japan, before he felt he’d turned a corner.

“Once it’s set up, it really works amazingly,” Andrus says. “The ducks keep the field clean of weeds, and the rice is so much more green and vibrant than it would be in a static field with no ducks.” With the birds as automatic pest-killers and fertilizers, there is no need for chemical inputs, which are widespread in conventional rice farming. Their paddling prevents weed growth, stimulates growth of the rice plants and improves tillering (creation of side shoots necessary for good production). This style of rice-duck farming has been shown to potentially reduce methane emissions by more than 6 percent.

Read our report The FoodPrint of Crops

A well-executed field can be quite productive; by doing his own processing and retail, Andrus has grossed over $15,000 an acre. Andrus now uses female Canadian moulard ducks, raising them to full size and selling them as a value-added product. A consultant on the Cornell project, he hopes it will provide farmers with support he did not have. “There are so many marginal ag assets that could become nodes of new successful rice farming in the northeastern landscape,” he says, adding that intercultural experience would support learning.

Some of these Japanese techniques meet time-honored West African methods at Ever-Growing Family Farm in Ulster Park and Kerhonkson, New York. After starting out with some of Andrus’s seeds, Nfamara Badjie, Dawn Hoyte, their son Malick and Nfamara’s cousin Moustapha Diedhiou have been growing rice in these paddies since 2015. Members of the Jola people of West Africa, rice farming is an intrinsic part of Badjie and Diedhiou’s culture; following custom, harvest time includes traditional song and drumming, and a percentage of sales are donated to their villages back in Gambia so residents can buy rice.

Everyone in Badjie’s family had other primary jobs when starting out, but thanks to a grant, Malick is now farming expanded acreage full-time. Hoyte notes, as has Andrus, that the paddies encourage ecological and wildlife diversity, attracting dragonflies, damselflies, frogs and many kinds of birds. Over the years, Hoyte has also observed that the growing seasons have become slightly longer. “That means we could grow more rice,” she says. Small-scale rice farmers grow seedlings in a green- or hoop house and transplant them, which can now happen earlier in the year, meaning planting more varieties with varying maturation times could even result in two growing seasons.

The Ever-Growing team worked with Cornell professor and tropical agronomist Erika Styger to develop an approach that would work in the Hudson Valley. Styger is an expert in the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a climate-resilient agronomic method which improves rice productivity while regenerating soils and reducing chemical and water use. Developed in Madagascar and increasingly popular among smallholder farmers in the Global South, SRI has been shown to reduce water use by 25 to 50 percent, and methane emissions by up to 70 percent. One of the tenets of SRI, intermittent flooding, is also used by Roberts down in South Carolina, who says the rice grown in the U.S. is “much happier” when water is used more as a wash than a flood.

Another method of rice farming that reduces methane emissions by using far less water is the dryland approach of growing without paddies. McCouch credits Jim Lyons of Blue Moon Acres farm in Pennington, New Jersey, with being “a real innovator” in dryland growing in the region. Lyons had played around with growing paddy rice 40 years ago — he’d adopted a macrobiotic diet, which emphasized the grain — but at the time had no way to process it, and he worried about the cereal’s arsenic levels. Lyons tried again around a decade ago, but this time began farming paddy-style varieties in permanent raised beds. His rice has low or non-existent levels of arsenic, which he also attributes to working with nature as best he can, employing regenerative and certified organic farming techniques.

Though he sells to white-tablecloth restaurants as well as consumers, Lyons characterizes his efforts as “a failed concept” because of continued challenges, particularly weeds. Despite the obstacles, he says he remains “ridiculously optimistic” about growing rice. He’s currently trialing, in deep mulch beds, six paddy-style varieties that grow shorter, are less prone to blast disease and fare well with less water.

That sense of optimism is shared at one of the region’s most acclaimed farm-restaurants, where the team is eager to share the results of an experimental dryland growing program with farmers, geneticists and chefs. Four neat rows of rice plants, approximately 2 feet high, now wave gently in the late-summer breeze just outside the two Michelin-starred kitchen of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. Of the 18 rice varieties being trialed at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, some are green, some have flowered or display curved golden panicles heavy with grains. Still others sport purple-tinged leaves. Some grains are elongated, others short and squat. “You can already tell we’re definitely going to have some agricultural successes,” says Stone Barns farmer Jason Grauer. The varieties were selected by Anna McClung, a recently retired longtime geneticist at the USDA’s Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Arkansas, as ones that might have the best possible success in the Northeast’s short growing season.

“It’s always fascinating for us to introduce a new crop into the system and go into unchartered territory.”

Jason Grauer

Director of farm innovation, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture

“In the Northeast, I think there’s a real place for grains, and a missing opportunity in grains,” explains Dan Barber, Blue Hill’s chef, who has already experimented extensively with wheat. He says his friend Roberts opened his eyes to the prospects of rice. Enthused about the idea of adapting these varieties to grow as row crops distinctive to the region, Barber is already thinking about next steps: “How do we mill it in a way that preserves the integrity of the bran and gives us that distinctive rice flavor?” he asks, hoping that regionally developed varieties will offer “flavors in rice we do not normally appreciate or don’t have access to.” And then there’s the kitchen R&D, from the various ways of cooking the grain to creating products like granulated rice “sugar.”

Grauer, who says it’s key for the seeds to adjust genetically as the seasons and environments change, is excited to see how the system in the Northeast develops. “It’s always fascinating for us to introduce a new crop into the system and go into unchartered territory,” he enthuses. “We’re trying out things we think they’ll like, exploring whether that’s effective.” One of the coolest parts, he adds, is “we have this new relationship forming, coming from the response we’re seeing to the plants being in this environment. Any chance we get to increase the biodiversity in our system, I think, is an amazing thing.”

Top photo by teerawutbunsom/Adobe Stock.

More Reading

Seeds and sovereignty: 8 books on biodiversity in the food system

February 23, 2024

A rye renaissance is coming

January 12, 2024

The importance of traditional Hawaiian food systems after the Lahaina blaze

December 7, 2023

Seed saving as a living legacy

November 7, 2023

Why 2023 is the International Year of Millets

October 5, 2023

Eat more grains — and keep it local

September 29, 2023

What can you make with half a million pounds of Kernza? Try beer.

September 18, 2023

Envisioning Indigenous Food Sovereignty as ‘a Whole Ecosystem’

August 24, 2023

Why Heirloom Seeds Matter

August 18, 2023