On the physiology of chalk…

“There are actually several different kinds of chalk in the grain. The one that is more environmentally-influenced is primarily air particles trapped within the kernel during its development and maturation process.

“A rice plant heads and after that fertilization occurs. The kernel then begins to develop. As it has been growing, the rice plant has accumulated ‘non-structural carbohydrates.’ After the plant heads and the grain begins to fill, the stored carbohydrates begin to migrate from the leaves and stem and stack up to create the kernel.

“Ideally the grain is filled at the optimum rate under moderate temperatures. But as temperatures increase, the plant’s functions speed up. That means under hot conditions, the plant’s grain-filling happens more quickly. The faster the cells stack up in the kernel, the less uniform they are.

“The non-uniformity creates areas where air can be trapped. That trapped air is what causes a lot of chalk in the grain.”

On rice breeding and grain quality…

“Some say breeders aren’t paying attention to grain quality. That isn’t true. Grain quality is a huge part of what we do when developing varieties.

“Everything we put in a yield trial is milled. Almost every plot in a yield trial has a milling sample harvested. Not only do we look at the head-rice yield, the total yield, but we also visually give a qualitative evaluation of the grain appearance. We look at chalk and grain length.

“We also look at the uniformity of grain length. You can have a variety that averages 6.9 millimeters in grain length. But it can lack uniformity – there can be a lot of longer kernels and a lot of shorter kernels. Ideally, you want very little variation.

“So, all the breeders treat quality issues as a very significant part of their efforts.”

On varietal differences…

“In my program, certain varieties have a reputation for having a bit higher quality. Others have a reputation for a bit lower quality.

“Louisiana millers really like the quality of Cheniere. They consider it ‘package quality.’

“Even so, that doesn’t mean there won’t occasionally be a sample, or lot, of Cheniere that is less than optimum quality. That goes back to (the aforementioned) relationship between genetics and environment. A field of Cheniere grown under extremely adverse conditions won’t have as good a quality as a field grown under better conditions.”

On steps taken to address quality…

“This has become enough of an ongoing issue that the USA Rice Federation has created the Rice Marketability and Competitiveness Task Force. Basically, they’re looking at rice quality and are charged with looking at the whole picture and how it can be addressed long-term.

“More short-term, the task force got samples from a number of varieties grown in 2010. They had those milled uniformly as the first step to see exactly what the mills are looking for. The mills qualitatively evaluated the samples and the USDA lab in Stuttgart, Ark., did some quantitative evaluations. The lab actually measured grain dimensions, looked at some of the cereal chemistry aspects, the amount of chalk and other things.

“The study wasn’t perfect because ideally all the different varieties would be grown under the same environmental conditions. But it was a solid first step in trying to get a handle on what the quality problem actually is, what the mills are looking for. Are all the mills looking at the samples the same?

“We’re now trying to build upon that study to get a stronger database.

“Ultimately, it will lead to a very beneficial controlled study. Right now, we’re set up to conduct the study in Mississippi, in Louisiana, in Texas and, hopefully, in Arkansas. We’re still in discussions about how many varieties will be included – but we want to grow the finalized list under the same environmental conditions. In Louisiana, I’ll probably grow the varieties with two planting dates just like they’ll do in the other states. To a large extent, that will take environmental variation out of the picture.

“After that work is done, the millers and end-users will be able to say if there are specific varieties that fit their needs better. If there are, we’ll see more and more 'IP’ing' (Identity Preservation). Customers would say ‘I want (X) variety’ and, ideally, very similar varieties could be co-mingled.

“Right now, in many mills it is common for a number of long-grain varieties to be co-mingled. This often leads to good quality rice mixed with poor quality creating a smorgasbord of mediocre quality rice.

“The industry must look more and more to identify varieties that, perhaps, users prefer. And they’ll have to move toward IP’ing those varieties. I’m not sure whether that will necessitate a premium for growers or the expectation of a discount if they grow a different variety. But that’s where I see the market moving.”

On the California rice industry…

“California rice doesn’t have the same quality issues as Mid-South rice. This is primarily a long-grain issue and California grows primarily medium-grain rice.”