Worldwide medium-grain rice supplies are extremely tight and, understandably, Mid-South growers would like to take advantage. However, there is a lack of medium-grain seed in the region and some are looking to California as a solution. Arkansas state officials and researchers are warning that seed shipments from California are a bad idea for several reasons.

“Last year, Australia and some Asian countries that grow medium-grain rice had poor crops,” says Keith Glover, president and CEO of Producers Rice Mill, Stuttgart, Ark. “The situation in California (which grows the bulk of U.S. medium-grain acreage) is shaky, as well, with concerns about the water supply and how much will be available to grow crops.”

Due to that, medium-grain rice has maintained good prices while there has been “a sell-off of long-grain prices since last summer. Obviously, going into the planting season, there’s a lot more interest from Arkansas rice growers in medium-grain varieties. We’ll see an increase in medium-grain acreage, no doubt.”

The bottleneck is the supply of Mid-South medium-grain varieties. “There’s a lack of availability. The last time I spoke to a seed dealer, they said they’d sold out.”

In light of the markets, rice growers considering medium-grain varieties are being smart, says Rick Cartwright, Arkansas Extension plant pathologist. “The problem is medium-grain rice isn’t the norm in the Mid-South and we don’t have enough seed. Well, growers and seed dealers are an enterprising lot. They know that California grows a lot of medium-grain rice. So, some have been calling out there trying to arrange to have some seed shipped here.”

Doing so would be a bad idea, says Cartwright. And there’s good science behind his worries.

“There’s a quarantine against seed that might harbor bakanae, a fungal disease. For the last few years, California has had that disease, which is exclusively a seed-borne fungus and a big pain if you get it. We don’t want it in the Mid-South.”

Plus, the California varieties aren’t adapted for the Mid-South. If grown in the region, “blast will wipe them out anyway. Farmers here that might try to grow them are at an incredible risk. And if anyone is caught growing (such varieties), they’ll take a hit — the quarantine means the crop could be destroyed plus major fines.”

On paper the idea of bringing in medium-grain seed from California looks like a good one, concedes Terry Walker, director of the Arkansas Plant Board’s Plant Industry Division. “It would seem to fill a need and be a way for farmers to get some premium prices. The risks aren’t worth it, though. There’s no going back — once bakanae is here, it isn’t going anywhere. We must be very cautious on the front end to keep it out.”

Here’s another issue: any rice seed used for planting in 2009 must be subjected to a credited lab, using a validated procedure to be tested for the presence of the Liberty Link trait.

“That could be another fly in the ointment,” says Walker. “There are very stiff penalties for importing seed and planting it without having those tests. In the flurry of scrambling to find seed and plant it, some may overlook the required testing.

“And destruction of the fields is a regulatory option. It’s drastic and we prefer not to do it. However, in the case of bakanae, if infected seed is planted, plowing it up won’t do any good — the ground will have already been inoculated.”

Of course, if Arkansas farmers are considering planting California medium-grain rice, it follows that farmers in other Mid-South states are too. When Walker first got word of the situation, “I immediately contacted my counterparts in the surrounding states and provided information. I hope everyone takes it seriously and is hard-line on it.”

The Mid-South doesn’t need to voluntarily introduce bakanae, says Cartwright. “No matter what you do to try to disinfect the seed, you can’t get all the fungus. So, if commercial quantities of seed are brought in, it will bring bakanae to the South. That’s a definite. California has proven that. They got it in 1999, brought in from another country illegally, and the farmers have battled it ever since.”

Also, California varieties aren’t adapted for Mid-South conditions, aren’t resistant to Mid-South diseases and can easily be wiped out.

“Long-time growers may remember that, years ago, before bakanae showed up in California, we used to plant a few California varieties,” says Cartwright, who spent time in California earning a graduate degree. “Those were always an opportunity for me to go out and take pictures of blast epidemics wiping out the fields. Now, I have enough pictures of blast and would warn farmers not to experiment with this seed. Growing California medium-grain varieties here is high risk/low benefit.”

Back in the early- or mid-1990s — before bakanae concerns — “some growers decided to grow a variety called M204 in Arkansas. At the time, it was a new California medium-grain. I told some of the growers, ‘Plant it early, pump the water up really deep, get the Benlate ready and spray it the maximum number of times the label allows.’”

Not long after, Cartwright got a call from northeast Arkansas growers saying, “‘There’s something wrong with this rice.’ I went out to check it. Not only were the levees dead from blast but, in 6 inches of floodwater, rice in the paddies was burned down into the water. It looked like a fire had swept through.

“I noted the start of a lesion on a leaf — a pinpoint of infection. Seven days later, I went back to check and that same lesion was 4 inches long. These varieties are too susceptible to Mid-South blast strains.”

Breeders in California have been working hard to get resistance to blast into their varieties. “They’ve done a good job. But the resistance they have is to strains they have out there. Here, blast would eat that rice for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com