Of Rice and Glenn

This past spring, Glenn Roberts arranged for some unusual gifts to Stone Barns Center: grains of red and black rice—anti-oxidant-rich varieties that have not yet been commercialized. And he asked Jack Algiere, our Four Season Farm Director, to work them into his field crop rotations.

Rice? Grown on a hillside in the Northeast? Around the world, most rice is grown in flooded or seasonally flooded environments—paddies. In the United States, that's coastal South Carolina, the Mississippi Delta, California’s Central Valley. But Glenn, the founder-owner of Anson Mills, the South Carolina-based maker of handmade mill goods from organic heirloom grains, assured Jack that it could and should be done in an upland locale like the farm, and using a lot less water than normal.

A self-professed “food research groupie,” Glenn has in recent years become a convert to the work of Dr. Erika Styger, a tropical rice
specialist at Cornell University. Her work centers on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), in which an intermittent irrigation, rather than flooding, is applied, allowing for the wetting and drying of rice fields. Through SRI, roots can breathe and soil microbes can develop, both leading to higher biomass production and increased productivity— important for resource-limited farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Worldwide, more than 3.5 billion people depend on rice for more than 20% of their daily calories.

In fact, notes Glenn, SRI’s success overseas is well-documented in peer-reviewed science journals. “So why shouldn't SRI be in America?” he says, passionately. In particular, he is interested in the potential for SRI to help lessen the environmental impacts of rice production. “The rice industry in the U.S. has a heavy metal problem,” says Glenn, referring to the build-up of arsenic in rice grown in standing water. Some 90% of rice grown in this country is flood irrigated, which also produces methane, a greenhouse gas.

“As Glenn puts it simply, this experiment is growing rice as a vegetable,” says Jack. In June, he and his farmers planted the rice alongside corn and squash and covered it in corn-based plastic sheeting to retain the moisture generated from a drip-irrigation hose.

Erika Styger will be analyzing the results of our experiment down the road, including the arsenic content, which she expects to be low. “If the results are respectable, as they have been in over 50 countries, it will stimulate our thinking about how we can pursue an agricultural intensification using fewer inputs, not more,” she says.

Header photo: Jack Algiere (at left), Glenn Roberts and Edward Baxter, director of SRI Global, looking at rice shoots in July.