Colusa, Fortuna, Acadia. Those are names you don’t hear much in connection with the rice industry anymore. But, at one time, they were probably household names for rice farmers in southwest Louisiana.
In fact, they were the first rice varieties released by the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station, located then just west of Crowley, La. Colusa, a short-grain rice variety, was introduced in 1917, and Fortuna, a long-grain, and Acadia, another short-grain, were released in 1918.
Those three varieties, along with 39 others developed by station scientists in the years since it was first established in 1909, were on display when the Louisiana State University AgCenter and more than 500 rice farmers and industry representatives celebrated the station’s centennial on July 1.
“The rice industry in southwest Louisiana really got started in the 1880s, and for the first 30 or 40 years the industry was based on very early varieties that had been introduced on the East Coast 200 years earlier,” said Steve Linscombe, rice breeder and the AgCenter’s regional director.
“We had some very far-sighted, progressive producers who understood that if this industry was to remain viable and prosper, we were going to need new and better varieties continuously coming along in the future.”
The producers got together with the city of Crowley, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station and through a cooperative effort were able to establish the Rice Research Station on a 60-acre plot of land on the west side of Crowley. (USDA eventually turned over operation of the facility to the LSU Experiment Station.)
“Some of the initial work was done not so much to create new varieties, but they actually brought in germplasm lines and rice varieties from all over the world and started evaluating them to see if they could be adapted to the growing conditions in this part of the state,” said Linscombe, the first speaker on the field tour held in conjunction with the Centennial.
“The first few varieties to be released — Colusa, Fontana, and Acadia — were selections from lines that had been brought in from other areas. After the program had been in existence for a while, they started making artificial hybridizations and crosses and going through segregating generations to develop new genetic combinations very similar to things we’re doing today.”
Linscombe said one of the most productive rice breeders to work at the station was Dr. Nelson Jodon, whose career spanned 51 years from 1933 to 1984. Jodon was responsible for the development of 11 varieties, including Saturn, a medium-grain variety which was grown for more than 30 years in Louisiana.
“That’s a lot of time to be walking these breeding rows,” said Linscombe, who worked with Jodon as a young Extension specialist and considered him a mentor. “In fact, toward the end of his career, the story that I’ve heard is that they almost had to physically restrain Dr. Jodon from going out in the field. I think that illustrates his dedication.”
Saturn, which Jodon released in 1964, set a new standard for yield potential and quality. When Saturn was released, it gave farmers another 5 to 6 barrels per acre above earlier medium grain varieties. (A barrel of rice weighs 162 pounds.)
With the increased interest in medium-grain varieties due to higher prices for the rice, LSU has established a medium-grain variety breeding program, led by Brooks Blanche, an LSU AgCenter scientist who also works at the Rice Research Station.
Blanche pointed out the medium-grain varieties released by the station, beginning with Magnolia in 1945, continuing through Nato, Saturn and LA 110 up through the 1970s, to Mercury in the 1980s and Bengal, Lafitte, Earl, Jupiter and Neptune in the 1990s and 2000s.
“All of those varieties were released for a reason,” said Blanche. “They all had some characteristic that was an improvement over the previous varieties. I think you can see some of the obvious differences here in these plots.”
Besides the 42 previously-released varieties, the plots also contained several varieties that could be released by the Rice Research Station in the near future. Those include a variety that could be named Clearfield 111 that will be about a week earlier in maturity than the currently available Clearfield 151.
On a subsequent tour stop, Don Groth, LSU AgCenter plant pathologist at the Rice Research Station, recounted some of the history of the use of fungicides on rice in southwest Louisiana, beginning with Benlate and continuing to the relatively recent arrival of the strobilurin compounds.
“When we first began using fungicides like the ten compounds, the application rate often was 1 pound per acre,” he said. “Now, the use rate frequently is as low as a tenth of a pound per acre.”
Researchers have also been able to make inroads into rice diseases with cultural management practices, such as prolonging the flood to reduce the incidence of blast disease, and by developing disease-resistant varieties.
“The Bengal medium-grain variety, released by the LSU AgCenter in 1992, reduced yield losses from disease by 50 percent,” said Groth. “Neptune, a medium-grain variety released in 2008, is even better.”