Bucking the conventional, rice producer Mike Ellis grows his crop without levees or diesel.

“I’ve been doing this for eight years,” says Ellis, pointing out his pick-up truck window at a well-tended field of medium-grain Jupiter. “When I was in college, there were some people in Dexter, Mo., doing it. Of course, they didn’t have the weed control we have now – it was kind of hit-and-miss with Facet.”

View photos of Ellis' operation  here.

Now, with much better herbicides, “it’s not as big a stretch.”

This particular field, outside Paragould, Ark., is about 35 acres. If it was farmed traditionally, there would contain around 25 levees.

“Those are eliminated by going with this type of farming. We do have a few levees at the bottom end to catch the run-off and slow it down.

“Now, it’s not a practice that can be used everywhere. But every Delta farmer has some fields it would probably work in. It runs about a week to 10 days behind paddy rice.”

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The biggest advantage with the practice, says Ellis, shows up in fields where there are many stacked levees. It also cuts down labor – “there’s not much to adjust.

“Now, you may have to spray for weeds an extra time because in a flooded environment the water keeps weeds down. That isn’t the case here, obviously.”

Ellis also has to apply a bit more nitrogen than normal. The method isn’t as efficient with that compared to a flooded field.

“I haven’t noticed any differences as far as pests in this field. Just typical rice issues.”

Ellis farms 2,850 acres. This year, “I’m not growing as much rice as normal – about 700 acres. Usually, I plant 1,100 acres in rice.”

Since the practice is so rare, Ellis doesn’t have a template to go by. “It’s kind of hit-and-miss and we’re trying different things. I have never tried watering more than a quarter-mile. I don’t know the limits. Would a half-mile work?”

The levee-less crop is normally irrigated every other night. “We keep it muddy.

“The yields from doing this, I’ve found, are par – or maybe a slight discount – with a conventional field. I can’t tell much difference between this field and a paddy-field in the same variety right next to it. They were planted at the same time and look the same, really.”

What goaded Ellis to try this?

“My father, who’s still alive, always wanted to do it. So, we just decided to give it a shot. Rob Baxley, my consultant, has been very helpful and beneficial in working with it.”

One of the main reasons people have shied away from it is a fear of blast, says Ellis. “I was always told blast would tear it up because rice needs to be flooded to keep that from happening. But we haven’t had any trouble with blast.”

Jupiter, he says, “is susceptible to blast. We’ve also grown hybrids doing this.”

While not on every one of Ellis’ rice acres, it’s on “200 acres down the middles. I usually have 150 to 300 acres of rice down the middles every year. It just depends on the rotation.

“One of the good things is if it’s a dry fall, you won’t rut the ground up when harvesting. The field is ready to no-till soybeans the next year. You just use the same beds – it’s bedded up just like corn or cotton.”

The field, alongside a busy road, has drawn attention.

“Last year was the first time I’ve done this on the highway. Before that, it was always back off the road or on the backside of the farm and wasn’t noticed much. But when we put it on this main road, there was many more folks wanting to talk about it.

“I’m going to see if the NRCS and soil conservationists want to check it out and verify how much water is being used.”

No diesel

Not only is Ellis growing rice without levees, he’s also growing it without diesel.

“We use electricity to run the pumps. (My cousin), Dwight Ellis, sells electric boxes that use half the usual power.

“An electric motor turns 1750 RPMs – it’s either on or off. What this does, is make it like an engine. You can either speed it up or slow it down, just like a diesel power unit. What’s significant about that is if you can slow it down to 1550, it uses half the electricity it does at 1750.”

Dwight, an industrial electrician before beginning to farm, says until six years ago, he didn’t even know the equipment was available. “Turns out these have been around since 1967 in car plants. You can run them at variable speeds without hurting your motor.

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“They make these in Chicago and Wisconsin and I’ve become an OEM – Original Equipment Manufacturer. We distribute and service them. Everything’s new when it leaves here and we have a five-year warrantee.”

He goes into more detail. “Here’s the thing: you can back the (panel) 10 percent off its full speed and save 40 percent on electricity costs. You stop the full-load starting up. There’s a five-second ramp up -- on grain bins, that’s sometimes 45 seconds to a minute.”

A motor pulls 13 times its full-load amps when it starts. “You know how hard it normally is to crank a fan up? Well, if we’re starting, say, three motors on one drive, it’ll take 45 seconds. It just won’t go until it gets the full amps of the motor.”

A fan’s motor is either off or on, says Mike. “You have to have a bigger motor because it takes so much power to start it.

“And the traditional way of thinking is that if you slow an electric motor down it’ll burn up. Well, using this, it won’t burn anything up. And if you can slow things down just a bit, it saves a bunch of electricity.”

The reason these haven’t been used in agriculture is they were so expensive when they came out, says Dwight. “Now, though, with the cost of fuel going up along with everything else, it’s a perfect world for these variable frequency drives.”

The Ellis cousins are the first to work with the equipment on farms in the area. All eleven of their bins – 160,000 bushels worth of storage -- are on the electric drives.

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“When I started this, you could buy a power unit for $12,000,” says Dwight. “Now, they cost $22,000-plus. We can put a three-phase system in on a well for $14,000 to $16,000 – electric motor, the whole nine yards. The difference is how far we have to run our wire.

“It’s a question of efficiency. How can we make things more efficient? When I’m through, there won’t be a diesel power unit on my land.”

Mike points out that one “magic box” is running six grain bins and a well. “One power unit couldn’t do that.”