The LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station at Crowley, La., is celebrating a century of operation this year, making it the oldest facility of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

The station was established in the spring of 1909 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after farmers saw the need for improved rice varieties adapted for southwest Louisiana and for help with growing the crop in Gulf Coast conditions.

Eventually, the USDA phased out its role at the station, which is now run entirely by the LSU AgCenter.

Rice farming on a widespread commercial basis in Louisiana began in the late 19th century. Demand increased for a research facility to develop new varieties adapted for the Gulf Coast.

“They were using some of the same varieties, such as Carolina Gold, for example, that had been used for almost 200 years,” said Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station.

Linscombe said Louisiana farmers adopted the wheat-growing practices and equipment from the Midwestern grain states. Also, farmers from northern grain states relocated to Louisiana upon learning that their agricultural practices and experience could be used to grow rice.

Many Louisiana farmers had turned to rice after sugar prices crashed in the 1800s. Louisiana rice production went from 1.5 million pounds in 1864 to more than 40 million pounds by 1877, according to the March 1932 issue of the “Rice Journal.”

By the late 1800s, developers were advertising land for sale in southwest Louisiana and boasting of the area’s abundant water and mild climate. Acadia Parish, where the Rice Experiment Station would be located, became the leader in the rice industry with some of the best yields — 15-25 barrels per acre at 162 pounds per barrel.

The 1890 crop was a record-breaker at 80 million pounds, making Louisiana the No. 1 rice producing state, surpassing the former leader, South Carolina.

In the early 1900s, more Louisiana farmers switched to rice, according to the 1910 annual report of the USDA Office of Experiment Stations.

“The ravages of the boll weevil have made the growing of cotton less profitable than formerly and the farmers are turning to rice growing. This necessitates the installation of pumping plants, the building of levees, etc., and the cotton growers are usually entirely unfamiliar with such things,” the report said.

The 1910 report detailed the origins of the new station: “A substation for rice culture was established at Crowley, and work was begun during the spring of 1909. The station is conducted in cooperation with this department. Local parties gave 60 acres of land for the use of the station and subscribed $3,500 for buildings. The legislature authorized its establishment by an act passed July 1, 1908, but no appropriation for the purpose was made at the time. F.C. Quereau was called from the University of Tennessee to the position of assistant director in charge of this station.”

The next year’s report indicates the legislature appropriated $15,000 for maintenance during the next two years. A 60-horsepower gasoline engine to pump water was installed for $2,500 in 1910. Research included testing of 300 rice varieties along with studies of insects, irrigation and evaporation.

John Denison’s grandfather was among the Midwest farmers who came to southwest Louisiana, making the move in 1890. “He was one of the original settlers,” said Denison, who still lives on the original 160-acre homestead his grandfather settled.

Land developers, such as J.B. Watkins of Lake Charles, came to Louisiana to buy large expanses of land to be sold to farmers. Once agriculture became established, railways followed.

Denison said Watkins helped bring Seaman Knapp to Louisiana and to LSU. Knapp Hall on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge is named after him. He is regarded as the pioneer of the cooperative extension model as well as a pioneer in Louisiana rice production.

“He was truly a pioneer in the rice industry in southwest Louisiana,” Denison said.

Denison, 73, recalls the original Rice Research Station before it was moved to its current location between Crowley and Rayne. “I can actually remember coming to one field day at the old station west of Crowley,” Denison said.

In 1949, the station bought 720 acres of land northeast of Crowley, its current site, to establish the Rice Research Station’s Foundation Seed Program to ensure a pure source of seed for rice farmers. The program has sold more than 160,000 pounds of seed.

In 1963, the station expanded by 320 acres with the addition of the South Farm, located 2 miles south of Crowley.

Crawfish research began at the station in the 1970s, and it now has the largest facility of its kind in the world.

Rouse Caffey, former LSU AgCenter chancellor, worked at the research facility from 1962 until 1970. “When I came to the rice station, they had just moved the rice station from west of Crowley to east of Crowley on 719 acres of land,” Caffey said. “The old station west of town had been relegated to rice, pastures and beef cattle work.”

Caffey said he started doing research in northeast Louisiana after some efforts were initiated to get a rice research facility in that part of the state.

“So, I started out field testing in East Carroll Parish — testing varieties, dates of planting, fertilizer, weed control and insect studies,” Caffey said. “And that went on throughout my time, and it has served the people of northwest Louisiana very well.”

Caffey said the Rice Research Station is the best facility worldwide. “And I’ve visited the international stations,” Caffey said. “I’ve visited IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines); I’ve visited a Chinese rice research center; I’ve visited Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi; and I’m convinced that the work in Louisiana stands above all the rest; and that’s because of the continued improvement of technologies by good researchers who are dedicated toward serving the Louisiana rice industry.”

As an example, Caffey said the first disease-resistant rice variety, Saturn, was developed by Nelson Jodon at the Louisiana station. Jodon is considered a pioneer in the use of genetic markers for rice breeding.

In 1972, Louisiana rice producers took the initiative to increase research, forming the Louisiana Rice Research Board. Growers agreed to pay 5 cents for every 100 pounds of their rice crop to fund research projects. That program has generated more than $30 million in research funds since then.

Over the years, the station has helped develop shorter-stature rice that is less likely to get knocked down by storms, Denison said, and that has helped boost yields.

“The research station has always been aggressive on impacting problems,” Denison said.

Denison said the station’s work has helped keep rice profitable.

“The Crowley rice research station has been important to rice farmers because we are probably the most disadvantaged rice-producing state there is,” Denison said. He explained that Louisiana yields are less than those of other states while disease pressure is higher.

“Without an aggressive Rice Research Station, we would not be raising almost 500,000 acres of rice in Louisiana,” Denison said. “We always looked to the station for new varieties to make more rice per acre.”

Denison said a 20-barrel yield was once considered respectable, but now that total has more than doubled.

“When we made 20 barrels to the acre, we thought we had a great crop,” he said. “Then when we planted Nato (a rice variety developed in 1956), we were suddenly able to make 30 barrels to the acre. When Saturn was developed by Dr. Jodon (a rice breeder at the station), we were making 40 barrels to the acre. So, you can easily see how our gross income would increase with these great improvements in varieties.”

Higher yields were not just the result of new varieties, however, as the station’s studies of production practices also helped increase production.

The practice of land-leveling was perfected at the station in the 1960s. Any major insecticide or fungicide labeled for use in the southern United States was tested thoroughly at the station, including propanil that allowed rice breeders to develop shorter-growing rice less susceptible to lodging.

Until 1990 the station had a herd of cattle to replicate the growing conditions of farmers who also raised beef.

The variety Clearfield, developed at the station in the late 1990s, resulted in rice varieties that enabled farmers to make progress against red rice — a weed closely related to conventional rice. Clearfield technology also allowed farmers to drill-seed rice into dry soil instead of seeding directly into water from the air.

The varieties developed at the station during the past 15 years dominate the rice-growing regions of the southern United States. Clearfield acreage could exceed 65 percent of rice grown in the South this year, Linscombe said.

In total, a century of rice breeding at the station has resulted in 43 varieties.

“We have close working relationships with rice stations all over the world,” Linscombe said. “The Rice Research Station obtains new breeding lines and germplasm from around the globe.”

Rice is unique among commercial crops, Linscombe said, because many rice varieties are still developed through publicly funded research.

Research at the station has changed drastically, thanks to improvements in technology and knowledge.

Linscombe said rice breeders 40 years ago would have chosen experimental lines from 4,000 rows a year. Now, breeders make selections from more than 30,000 rows, and more than 400,000 are grown each year at the station.

The use of DNA markers to determine if a line has desired characteristics has decreased the time required to develop a new variety. And the use of a winter nursery in Puerto Rico also enables varieties to be available sooner.

Linscombe said the DNA work is just one example of how the research facility has evolved to keep up with the demands of agriculture.

“The developments of rice research at the station during the past century represent hundreds of thousands of hours of difficult, tedious work,” he said. “When the next centennial is celebrated, I’m confident that the achievements from the Rice Research Station will continue to be at the forefront of the industry.”