John Greer says it can take five to six hours to clean a combine when a seed producer moves from harvesting one rice variety to another.
That’s just part of being in the seed business for Greer, who has been growing rice in some form since he was 11 years old. He’s spent most of his career as vice president and general manager of Burns Seed Co. near Jonesboro, Ark.
When you see how meticulously Greer handles seed rice, you can only imagine what he must be thinking about the possibility he may lose 87,000 bushels of certified seed production because of something that happened 400 miles away.
In this case, the production is from Cheniere, a Louisiana release that has been one of the higher-yielding varieties in the University of Arkansas performance trials. In August, a sample of Cheniere foundation seed grown in 2003 was found to contain a trace amount of genetic material from LL601 — a LibertyLink genetically modified rice.
Rice prices took a tumble after the discovery of the unapproved LL601 rice seed. LL601 has not been found in Cheniere foundation seed from other years or in other varieties.
Greer says he could be hurt financially, but that’s not his only worry as state regulatory officials try to figure out what to do to make sure no more LL601 material winds up in commercial rice.
“There’s speculation that the (Arkansas) State Plant Board won’t certify this year’s seed production from Cheniere,” he said in an interview at his farm headquarters on Highway 91 west of Jonesboro.
“That would affect not only the grain I have in hand. But I also have 275 acres I planned to put into Cheniere in 2007,” he notes. “I can’t screw up my rotation.”
Greer explains that he normally maps out his rotation plans three years in advance to avoid contaminating seed from one variety with seed from another. Planting different varieties “back-to-back” in the same field almost guarantees the seed won’t be pure.
“Wells and Cheniere were the two main varieties I grew this year,” he said. “I had 10,000 more bushels of Wells than Cheniere. If I can’t grow Cheniere next year, it throws my rotation out of kilter.”
Greer, who became general manager of Burns Seed Co. in 1968, has had to deal with rotation issues on the 3,000-acre operation in the past. (Some say Burns Seed, which sells 100 percent of its production to Cache River Valley Seed LLC, is the largest seed rice farm in the world.)
Typically, he grows between 1,675 and 1,700 acres of seed rice each year, fallowing the remainder until recently when soybeans began inching their way back into the operation. Greer had quit planting soybeans 15 years ago.
“It was either quit the seed rice business or expand it and that meant getting out of soybeans,” he said. “I got into a problem with one year of soybeans and one year of rice. That was before we had Roundup Ready soybeans. I could control 99 percent of the volunteer rice but still have heads of other varieties out there.
“Another reason was that we didn’t have anything that would control sheath blight in soybeans. We would throw $40 to $45 an acre in fungicides out there and get very little control. This was about the same time we discovered sheath blight in rice and aerial blight in soybeans were the same organism.”
In recent years, Greer has been turning over more and more acres to coworker Mike Mahan for soybean production.
Greer says he still does seed production the “old-fashioned way,” leaving roguing lanes so workers can take out off-types and plants from other varieties with a hoe. But they take that a step further, using flags — “the same person, same color, all year.”
He doesn’t believe in using Mudmasters with three or four people riding on a tool bar, chopping or spraying off-types. “To me, that’s a joke,” he said. “Some people are getting by with it, but that’s not quality seed production.”
Cheniere was the top yielding of the six varieties he grew on the farm in 2005. In 2006, it was No. 3 among the seven varieties grown that included CL 171-AR, a new Clearfield variety that was flown from a winter nursery in Puerto Rico to the Jacko Garrett Farm near Houston and to Burns Seed Farm for seed increase.
Several varieties and fields did not perform as well in 2006 as they have in other years, he said. “The only difference I can see was in planting dates. One or two days can have an impact. This was one of our better-looking crops, but the yield wasn’t there.”
The Arkansas Plant Board now has new regulations to consider when it makes a decision on Cheniere, possibly later this month.
“Under the new rules, they don’t have to certify genetically modified material,” says Greer. “I believe they will talk to mills and get their reading on the situation before they make a decision.”
This won’t be Greer’s first experience with LibertyLink traits in rice. He grew 500 acres of a LibertyLink-tolerant variety that was similar to the medium grain variety Bengal. The seed from that field wound up in the Craighead County dump. “It gave the best weed control of anything I’ve ever seen in a rice field,” he said.
Greer believes the latest unpleasantness surrounding the LibertyLink varieties will eventually be good for the technology. “The only thing that will kill it will be if Bayer CropScience is fined and throws up its hands and quits.”
What will the Plant Board do? Greer believes there’s a 50-50 chance it will certify the Cheniere seed, allowing him to produce it again next year with no worry that it will command the normal premium for seed rice.
If it doesn’t? “I’ll probably have to shift more acres to soybeans,” he said. “If rice comes into greater demand in the next two or three years, I won’t be able to produce it.”