STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI, US — Four universities are participating in an effort through the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the sustainability and profitability of rice farming as the staple grain grapples with extreme weather and climate challenges.

Scientists at Louisiana State University (LSU), the University of Arkansas, Mississippi State University (MSU) and Texas A&M University are part of a team awarded a four-year $10 million grant by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The grant is part of an overall $70 million investment from the USDA to establish robust, resilient and climate-smart food and agricultural systems.

According to the LSU AgCenter, the specific project objectives are to assess the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of current crop management practices, identify barriers to adopting novel technologies and practices, develop novel genotypes with enhanced tolerance to biological and environmental stressors, develop and optimize environmentally friendly crop management practices and implement a robust extension program to disseminate the concepts and benefits of sustainable farming techniques.

“Because of our interdisciplinary expertise and MSU’s facilities, we are developing genetic mapping tools to identify the genes associated with stress tolerance, including projected changes in climate,” said Raja Reddy, an agronomist with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (MAFES). “Being able to identify these genes will help rice breeders develop climate-resilient cultivars, or plant varieties.” 

Reddy, a research professor in MSU’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, is working with assistant research professors Raju Bheemanahalli Rangappa and Hunter Bowman, also MAFES agronomists, on MSU’s part of the project, which is funded by a $970,000 grant.

Ranking sixth in the nation, Mississippi rice production is a $97 million industry, with over 115,000 farmed acres. In recent years, increasing extremes and unpredictability in weather patterns have begun to threaten the stability of this agricultural commodity.

“Like much of the US mid-South, Mississippi is seeing greater extremes in our high and low temperatures and greater intensities of drought during the early season,” Reddy said. “These conditions and higher temperatures during flowering are significant impediments to rice yield and grain quality.”

Reddy said the researchers, who collectively have many years of experience studying rice cultivation and breeding, also are planning extension activities to help growers optimize their resources, particularly water and nutrients, to get the best growth and yield from newly developed cultivars.