A lot of continuous-rice producers owe their successes to some sorry soybean ground in England, Ark., and Leroy Isbell's matchstick.
The story began in 1959 when Leroy, then 35 years old, acquired a 1,000-acre rice, cotton and soybean operation.
From the beginning, he wasn't satisfied with rotating soybeans and rice. Leroy's son Chris explained, “For us, 20- to 25-bushel soybeans is a bumper crop on the ground we have. Our buckshot soils do grow really good soybeans if they don't drown out.”
But for Leroy, “That was one too many ifs.” And so, on a 90-acre field near the farm's shop and office, Leroy began an experiment of sorts. That first year, he harvested a crop of fish from the field and sowed rice in it.
From then on, he went against conventional wisdom. He didn't rotate the ground with soybeans, preferring to take his chances with the higher-value crop.
The first few years weren't easy, especially since Leroy couldn't bring himself to pull levees in the field. “It had about a 6-inch fall on it,” he said.
Without levees, the field had to be flooded up slowly, which meant the higher ground often dried out and cracked open, exposing buried red rice seed to oxygen.
The seeds would germinate, but the elder Isbell persisted. He controlled the weeds and each year, he began to move the high spots.
At some time during the process he reached a point where the field, and others on the farm, had little slope and red rice control had become a lot easier.
Then, when laser leveling came to the market in the late 1970s, most farmers in the area, including Chris and his brother, Benny, wanted to level all their rice fields for a half-tenth foot of fall per 100 feet.
Leroy, then in his early 50s, rebelled at the idea, perhaps owing to his extreme dislike for levee work.
Chris recalls, “Daddy told us to put a 20-foot 2×4 on the floor. He took a wooden match stick and laid it under one end of it of the board.
“He said, ‘That's how much fall we're talking about. That's not enough slope for water to drain, but that's what everybody is doing.’”
The demonstration convinced Chris and Benny.
The Isbells, who raise 1,400 acres of continuous rice today, began to zero-grade their fields.
When a field was leveled, they dug a ditch around it and ringed it with a permanent outside levee. To water up or take water off a field, they simply opened or closed a gate between a canal and the perimeter ditch.
The first thing they noticed was how fast they could move water. “When you have a fall of a half-tenth foot per 100 feet on 40 acres, you're draining water across the entire 40 acres, from the top of the field to the bottom,” Chris explained.
“In zero grade, you have a ditch all the way around and a quarter of the field drains off each side. So water has less distance to travel.”
Over the previous 18 years, Leroy had figured out that water management was the secret to continuous rice. “You have a lot of red rice under the ground and if the seed gets enough oxygen, the red rice pops out,” Chris explained. “So you keep the flood on to keep ahead of red rice.”
Over the next 25 years the Isbells refined their water management through zero grade. They also proved that water seeding and no-till could also keep red rice at bay and allow them to raise continuous rice on the entire farm.
After harvest, the Isbells flood their zero grade fields for ducks. “A lot of people say the ducks get the red rice,” Leroy said. “The ducks get their part of it. But the water gets more.”
At planting they fly pre-germinated rice seed into the water. That way, they can establish a stand without ever draining the water, a key to prevent red rice exposure to oxygen.
“We put it in a tank, put water on it for 24 hours, drain it for 24 hours, put it in an airplane and put it on the field. It's already a plant at that time,” Chris said.
“Dry seed has about five days of oxygen supply,” the producer explained. “Pre-germinated seed is already past that. It doesn't need any more oxygen to come out of the water.
“That's where we save our money,” Leroy said. “We have a lot of fields this year that we sowed rice in water, and we never had to take the water off. So we don't have to (apply propanil). We only used an aquatic herbicide.”
However, the Isbells did have to drain several fields this year to control moss which had floated to the surface of the water.
In addition, the Isbells don't have problems with cold water rice, since they water from canals.
When they use well water “we open it up a quarter of a mile from the field,” Leroy said. “So by the time the water gets there, it's warmed up.”
“We use all the surface water we can because that's free,” Chris said. “All of our pumps are electric, and we have float switches in the canals. So when the canal gets full, the pump will shut off.
“When the canal is going down and the surface water runs out, we can set the wells where they will automatically come on and start pumping.”
In the beginning, the Isbells were often criticized for their approach to rice production, but always they took it good-naturedly.
For example, Leroy recalled the time when some neighbors were teasing him in a coffee shop. “They asked, ‘How are you going to drain a flat field?’ There was a pitcher of tea on the table, and I acted like I was going to pour it on the table where we were sitting. Everybody got out of the way real quick.”
Leroy got his point across that day. But he understands how farmers who've never tried zero grade feel about the practice. Simply, “slope is soothing to the mind,” he said.
Delaplaine, Ark., rice producer Terry Gray says the best thing about the Isbells is their willingness to share information with other farmers. Gray started zero grading several years ago.
Leroy has a down-to-earth, almost whimsical, approach to teaching. Gray recalls that the first time he talked to the Isbells, “Leroy was trying to make several points, and I just couldn't conceptualize it in my mind. He said, ‘Terry, you just ain't thinking right.’
“But you just about have to go and do what he's doing before you do start thinking right,” Gray says. “It's hard to change from the way you've been raised to grow rice. I went into it knowing I was going to make a few mistakes, and I did.”
Gray learned that it takes three things for red rice seed to germinate — temperature, moisture and oxygen. “You can't deprive the seed of temperature or moisture, but you sure can deprive it of oxygen. If you don't ever let that red rice seed get any oxygen, then you don't have any red rice.
“But the best thing I learned from them is the power of water control. I have copied what they're doing from the soak tanks to the water flags.
This spring, the Isbells sowed rice in the 90-acre field that Leroy acquired back in 1959 for the 43rd consecutive year. Three years ago, Leroy received an honor for this feat, when a huge yellow sign was erected in the field which read, “First State Bank salutes Leroy Isbell, rice grown 40 consecutive years in this field.”
Each year since, the Isbells have changed the number to make it current. They say they still make mistakes and occasionally have outbreaks of red rice in the field. But they have seen very little drop-off in yield or quality. “And it sure beats a soybean crop,” Chris said.
And, of course, every now and then a farmer will complain that the zero graders have too much time on their hands. “Somebody told me I didn't know what work is, that I have it easy. But don't expect me to apologize,” Chris said, adding that it took hours upon hours of scraper duty to get the 1,400-acre farm to zero grade.