Karen Moldenhauer says that when she first started coming to the Villa Parguera in 1982 there were no TVs or telephones in the rooms. “It was rather peaceful,” says the University of Arkansas rice breeder.
Over the years, the hotel, which still has a rustic charm, has added more amenities, in part, because of the rice breeders and rice seed company personnel who stay at the hotel off and on during the winter months.
Little rice is grown commercially around Parguera or anywhere else in Puerto Rico these days. But a small tract of land at the Lajas Experiment Station, not far from Parguera, may have contributed more to the development of new southern rice varieties than any other single parcel in recent years.
“Some of my predecessors went down there in the 1970s,” says Steve Linscombe, rice breeder and director of the LSU AgCenter's Southwest Region and Rice Research Station, which is headquartered in Crowley, La. “They started with six three-acre blocks near the entrance to the station.
“Since then, they've been expanding it each year, and they've turned it into a very good research facility for testing new rice lines or increasing seed for new varieties that we're about to introduce in the states.”
“This is rice central,” says Randy Ouzts, general manager of Horizon Ag LLC, referring to the lobby and restaurant of the Villa Parguera. “One night you may come in and see a table with the RiceTec Inc., folks; another night it might be university researchers.”
Ouzts has been traveling to Puerto Rico for several years to help with the harvesting of Clearfield varieties planted at the University of Puerto Rico research station for “bulking up” the seed before they are brought back to the states for seed increase by foundation seed growers.
On this particular trip, he and Moldenhauer have traveled the 1,800 miles or so from the Mid-South to Puerto Rico for the harvest of a new Clearfield variety that Moldenhauer developed by crossing Wells, a high-yielding, sheath-blight-tolerant, University of Arkansas release, with Clearfield 161.
The new variety, which will be named CL 171-AR, is scheduled to be released to registered seed growers in the Mid-South in 2007, thanks, in part, to the counter-seasonal production from seed planted at Lajas last November.
Jacko Garrett, a rice producer from Danbury, Texas, harvested the rice at Lajas on April 27, using a combine he provided the station several years ago. After the rice was cleaned and dried, the station shipped part of the seed rice to Garrett's farm via Federal Express.
Garrett planted 80 acres with the seed on May 4.
“We harvested this a little too green,” said Garrett, who farms 5,000 acres of rice. “But we're getting late for planting it in Texas. Most of our other rice was planted in April. If we get much later we could have problems with storms at harvest.”
Because of the hurricane potential for the Texas Coast, enough seed for about 20 acres was shipped to northeast Arkansas for planting by John Greer, who farms in Cash, and for 30 acres to Watson in southeast Arkansas.
“We'll probably put the remaining seed with other good growers and see how it does,” said Garrett. “That's what we did with Clearfield CL 131.”
Garrett, who has been traveling to Parguera for 20 years, said he and the researchers who work at Lajas use a seeding rate of 10 to 15 pounds per acre to spread the seed over more ground for seed increase.
“We have a multiplier of 2,200 to 1,” he said. “So we're able to take a small amount of seed and bump it up to a much larger quantity. We use a Hege precision row planter, which is also used to seed breeding rows of new crosses.”
“This allows us to plant about an acre of seed here and have enough for 600,000 acres in two years,” said Ouzts. “With the 80 acres Jacko planted on his farm and the 50 acres in the two Arkansas locations we should have enough seed for 4,000 to 5,000 acres of seed production next year.”
The Wells variety, which was named for Dr. Bobby Wells, a University of Arkansas scientist who conducted rice fertility research for a number of years, has consistently been one of the highest yielding varieties for Mid-South producers.
“Wells has been a good, high-yielding, high-milling variety,” said Moldenhauer. “It produces 180 to 190 bushels per acre in good years. The state average was 154 bushels per acre in 2004, so, in general, growers have been satisfied with the yields.”
Wells, like each of the other 16 varieties Moldenhauer has released since joining the faculty at the University of Arkansas in 1982, spent some time at Lajas during different stages of its development. “Every variety we've released since Tebonnet has gone through at least one season in the winter nursery here,” she said.
“We run most of our F-3 lines through here. When we make a cross, the seed that is produced is the F-1 generation. We take the seed from those plants, the F-2 generation and plant them individually. This is the generation with the most variability where we make our selections. The seed that we harvest from these plants is the F-3 seed, which we send to Puerto Rico and plant as panicle rows.”
The benefits of counter-seasonal planting at Lajas go beyond the warm, relatively dry climate enjoyed by the southern side of the island of Puerto Rico in the winter months. Because the latter is a U.S. territory, rice breeders can ship seed directly to the United States without the restrictions it would face if it came from another country.
“For it to go through quarantine, the rice would have to be grown in a green house,” says Linscombe. “We would never get the quantities we need to turn these varieties around as quickly as we do.”
He said most of the Clearfield rice, which was developed by scientists working at the LSU AgCenter's Rice Research Station in Crowley, has gone through the Lajas winter nursery. (Clearfield rice varieties are resistant to the herbicide imazethapyr or Newpath.)
Linscombe and his research team made the crosses for Clearfield 131, another herbicide-resistant variety, in 2000. There was a limited introduction of the variety in 2005. “We were able to take three years off the best we've done because we grew four generations of the variety in Puerto Rico during that timeframe.”
He said much of the success of the counter-seasonal production at Lajas is due to Anthony Rivera, the manager of the winter nursery who recently was also promoted to station administrator.
“The operation of the station has been very much improved during the 20 years I've been going down there,” said Linscombe. “When we started, all of the rice was planted by hand and harvested by hand. Moving the combine to Lajas meant we can harvest the rice much faster than before.”
Over the years, the winter rice area has been expanded to 20 different fields at the 170-acre station. The station has installed individual risers in every field and separate drainage systems in almost every field.”
The 60-year-old Lajas station is one of seven agricultural experiment stations run by the University of Puerto Rico. At one time, the valley that surrounds Lajas was the rice belt of Puerto Rico.
“We used to have research on Puerto Rican rice here until the 1980s,” said Rivera. “Then we shut it down because we just didn't have the commercial rice acres. Now we focus on vegetables and fruits like mangoes and papayas and the winter nursery for rice seed increase.”
Rivera rotates the rice seed increase program between several one-acre blocks, never growing rice in the same field two years in a row. The blocks are disked weekly to keep the tropical vegetation that surrounds the station at bay.
Linscombe brings Rivera to Crowley once a year to show him some of the latest developments in U.S. rice production. “He's done a good job of taking the things we do back to Puerto Rico and improving his program,” says Linscombe.