The LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station in Crowley, La., is celebrating a century of operation in 2009, making it the oldest facility of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
The station was established in the spring of 1909 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after farmers saw the need for improved rice varieties adapted for southwest Louisiana and for help growing rice in Gulf Coast conditions.
The USDA began phasing out its role in the station in the early 1980s. For another 20 years, the station housed only one USDA scientist. And by 2000, the station was run entirely by the AgCenter.
Rice farming on a widespread commercial basis in Louisiana began in the late 19th century.
“They were using some of the same varieties, such as Carolina Gold for example, that had been around for almost 200 years,” said Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station.
Many Louisiana farmers had turned to rice after sugar prices crashed in the 1800s. Louisiana rice production went from 1.5 million pounds in 1864 to more than 40 million pounds by 1877, according to the March 1932 issue of the “Rice Journal.”
By the late 1800s, developers were advertising land for sale in southwest Louisiana and boasting of the area’s abundant water and mild climate. Acadia Parish, where the Rice Experiment Station would be located, became the leader in the rice industry with some of the best yields – 15-25 barrels per acre at 162 pounds per barrel.
The 1890 crop was a record breaker at 80 million pounds, making Louisiana the No. 1 rice-producing state, surpassing the former leader, South Carolina.
In the early 1900s, more Louisiana farmers switched to rice, according to the 1910 Annual Report of the USDA Office of Experiment Stations.
“The ravages of the boll weevil have made the growing of cotton less profitable than formerly and the farmers are turning to rice growing. This necessitates the installation of pumping plants, the building of levees, etc., and the cotton growers are usually entirely unfamiliar with such things,” the report said. Acadia Parish officials had waged an aggressive campaign to locate the rice research facility near Crowley. The director of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station at that time was W.R. Dodson. The
Acadia Parish proposal stated, “Dr. Dodson is the father of the rice experimental station, but Acadia is its wet nurse. He drew the bill and furnished the plan, but Acadia farmers and representatives helped him push it through.”
The 1910 report detailed the origins of the new station: “A substation for rice culture was established at Crowley, and work was begun during the spring of 1909. The station is conducted in cooperation with this department. Local parties gave 60 acres of land for the use of the station and subscribed $3,500 for buildings. The legislature authorized its establishment by an act passed July 1, 1908, but no appropriation for the purpose was made at the time. F.C. Quereau was called from the University of Tennessee to the position of assistant director in charge of this station.”
The next year’s report indicates the legislature appropriated $15,000 for maintenance during the next two years. A 60-horsepower gasoline engine to pump water was installed for $2,500 in 1910. Research included testing 300 rice varieties along with studies of insects, irrigation and evaporation.
John Denison, a rice farmer from Iowa, La., said his grandfather was among a group of Midwest farmers who came to southwest Louisiana, making the move in 1890. “He was one of the original settlers,” Denison said.
Land developers, such as J.B. Watkins of Lake Charles, came to Louisiana to buy large expanses of land to be sold to farmers. Once agriculture became established, railways followed.
Denison said Watkins helped bring Seaman Knapp to Louisiana and to LSU. Knapp Hall on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge is named after him.
“Seaman Knapp is regarded as the pioneer of the cooperative extension model as well as a pioneer in Louisiana rice production,” said Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for extension.
Denison, 73, recalls the original Rice Research Station before it was moved to its current location between Crowley and Rayne.
“I can actually remember coming to one field day at the old station west of Crowley,” Denison said.
In 1949, the station bought 720 acres of land northeast of Crowley, its current site, to establish the Rice Research Station’s Foundation Seed Program to ensure a pure source of seed for rice farmers. The program has produced more than 160,000 hundredweights of seed.
In 1963, the station expanded by 320 acres with the addition of the South Farm, located two miles south of Crowley. Located there now is a crawfish research facility established in the 1970s, which has now grown to be one of the largest of its kind in the world.
H. Rouse Caffey, former LSU Ag- Center chancellor, worked at the research facility from 1962 until 1970.
“When I came to the rice station, they had just moved it from west of Crowley to east of Crowley,” Caffey said. “The old station west of town had been relegated to rice pastures and beef cattle research.”
Caffey said the Rice Research Station is the best facility worldwide.
“And I’ve visited the international stations,” Caffey said. “I’m convinced the research in Louisiana stands above all the rest, and that’s because of the continued improvement of technologies by good researchers dedicated to serving the Louisiana rice industry.”
In 1972, Louisiana rice producers took the initiative to increase research, forming the Louisiana Rice Research Board. Growers agreed to pay 5 cents for every 100 pounds of their rice crop to fund research projects. That program has generated more than $30 million in research funds since then.
“The Crowley station has been important to rice farmers because we are probably the most disadvantaged riceproducing state there is,” Denison said. He explained that Louisiana yields are less than those of other states while disease pressure is higher.
“Without an aggressive research program, we would not be raising almost 500,000 acres of rice in Louisiana,” Denison said. “We always looked to the station for new varieties to make more rice per acre.”
“When we made 20 barrels to the acre, we thought we had a great crop,” he said. “Then when we planted Nato (a rice variety developed in 1956), we were suddenly able to make 30 barrels to the acre.
When Saturn was developed by Dr. Nelson Jodon, we were making 40 barrels to the acre. So, you can easily see how our gross income would increase with these great improvements in varieties.”
Higher yields were not just the result of new varieties, however. The station’s studies of production practices also helped increase yields.
The practice of land-leveling was perfected at the station in the 1960s. Any major insecticide or fungicide labeled for use in the southern United States was tested thoroughly at the station, including propanil that allowed rice breeders to develop shorter-growing rice less susceptible to lodging (falling over).
Until 1990, the station had a herd of cattle to replicate the growing conditions of farmers who also raised beef.
The herbicide-resistant Clearfield line of rice, developed at the station in the late 1990s, resulted in rice varieties that enabled farmers to make progress against red rice – a weed closely related to conventional rice.
Clearfield technology also allowed farmers to drill-seed rice into dry soil instead of seeding directly into water from the air.
The varieties developed at the station during the past 15 years dominate the rice-growing regions of the southern United States. Clearfield acreage could exceed 65 percent of rice grown in the South this year, Linscombe said.
In total, a century of rice breeding at the station has resulted in 42 varieties.
“We have close working relationships with rice stations all over the world,” Linscombe said. “The Rice Research Station obtains new breeding lines and germplasm from around the globe.”
Rice is unique among commercial crops, Linscombe said, because many rice varieties are still developed through publicly funded research.
Research at the station has changed drastically, thanks to improvements in technology and knowledge.
Linscombe said rice breeders 40 years ago would have chosen experimental lines from 4,000 rows a year. Now, breeders make selections from more than 30,000 rows, and more than 400,000 are grown each year at the station.
The use of DNA markers to determine if a line has desired characteristics has decreased the time required to develop a new variety. And the use of a winter nursery in Puerto Rico also enables varieties to be available sooner.
Linscombe said the DNA work is just one example of how the research facility has evolved to keep up with the demands of agriculture.
“The developments of rice research at the station during the past century represent hundreds of thousands of hours of difficult, tedious work,” he said. “When the next centennial is celebrated, I’m confident that the achievements from the Rice Research Station will continue to be at the forefront of the industry.”
“We often hear how institutions of higher education are the engines of economic development,” said David Boethel, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for research. “The Rice Research Station is an excellent example of this.
“Research and development by scientists both at the station and on the Baton Rouge campus in the academic departments have allowed this major industry to be sustained for a century in the Louisiana. In fact, the technology has had the same effect throughout the riceproducing area in the southern United States.”
(This article was published in the summer 2009 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)