In the spring of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted a bumper rice crop for U.S. farmers and although the year saw the highest rice production on record (243.1 million hundredweight harvested), the crop ultimately was far from successful, and highlighted a simmering marketability and competitiveness challenge.

Last summer, extremely high overnight temperatures in parts of the Mid-South, particularly in Arkansas, resulted in disappointing yields for farmers, with an average long-grain field yield of 6,725 pounds — 360 pounds below a year earlier and the lowest field yield since 2005-06, according to USDA.

The hot temperatures also reduced milling yields, with the average long-grain milling yield for the 2010-11 crop at 67.75 percent, well below the 69.36 percent in the previous year and the lowest milling yield on record.

Millers of long-grain rough rice in the United States and abroad soon experienced the consequences — increased production of brokens, lower outturn of whole kernels and sub-par appearance of milled rice offered to consumers and other end users.

The complaints that followed reflected not just the effects of a poor growing season, but building concerns by end users that the competiveness of U.S. rice had been slipping in important “appearance” characteristics like overall grain length, consistency of kernels, and color. Put another way, customers want an improvement in the look of long-grain rice “on the plate.”

Some began to challenge the long-held “best quality” moniker of U.S. rice, and unfavorable comparisons were made to long-grain rice from competitor origins.

In response, the USA Rice Federation recently formed a task force to strengthen the marketability and competiveness of U.S.-grown rice. The task force will engage growers, researchers, millers and merchants to focus on the key agronomic requirements of producers, quality demands of consumers, and processing needs of millers in the development and introduction of rice varieties.

USA Rice Chairman and Louisiana rice farmer Jackie Loewer appointed the task force. The group is co-chaired by California rice farmer Nicole Montna Van Vleck and Riviana Foods VP for commodity procurement Mike Skuodas.

“This task force represents what is best in the U.S. rice industry — producers, millers, marketers and researchers who come together to work to advance the common good of the rice industry,” Loewer said.

The U.S. rice industry faces challenges in the domestic market from imported rice and in the international marketplace for customers who have high standards for quality. Addressing the long-term competiveness of American-grown rice is vital to the growth and profitability of the industry.

“Our domestic and export markets have long relied on consistent high quality from the U.S. rice industry and as an industry, we must collectively encourage development of rice varieties that have superior yields as well as quality characteristics demanded by users or face the potential of market loss to other competitors,” Loewer added.

“Addressing the long-term competitiveness of American-grown rice is vital to the growth and profitability of the industry.”

USA Rice’s Rice Marketability and Competitiveness Task Force has held its initial meeting and work is under way to identify, refine and implement a scope of work. As the group progresses in its effort, the support of the entire rice industry will be necessary to affect quality and yield improvements.