Chairman's Report-92


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Rice Research Board Chairman:
Steven L. Dennis


As I prepare to step down as chairman of the California Rice Research Board, I pause. for a moment to reflect on this industry's remarkable achievements. Per acre yields jumped noticeably in 1992 to 8,300 pounds per acre, a feat that can be attributed in large measure to the steady stream of well-adapted, market-driven new varieties developed over the last two decades by our plant breeders at the Rice Experiment Station (RES) in Biggs. Our success also stems from the work of an elite corps of scientists from the University of California, who have continually shed new light on old problems - weeds, disease, insects, straw disposal, pesticide residues and other areas. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to explore new methods of utilizing this all important food staple, rice.

Of course, we deserve some of the credit, too. California rice growers continually demonstrate their special talent at putting the fruits of our research program into effective practice. This last year saw a number of developments from the realm of scientific inquiry. My report here will summarize the highlights of that work. I encourage you, however, to read and enjoy this 24th annual report to California rice growers for a more detailed summary of last year's progress.

There is much talk today of the "globalization" of the world's economies and we see that trend reflected in the world of rice research. RES scientists are tapping into the genetic storehouse of rice varieties from throughout the world. From a Hungarian variety, for instance, plant breeders hope to extract greater seedling vigor. From the Philippines, as well as from domestic wild rice, breeders hope to infuse resistance to stem rot disease. Meanwhile, work continues on developing high-yielding short, medium and long grain rice varieties with improved cooking characteristics, grain quality, milling performance and other desirable traits.

Tracking the performance of developing varieties under actual field conditions is the job of a team of University of California farm advisors and RES scientists who conduct annual "variety trials" to gather yield data and other important information. Several, advanced and preliminary breeding lines show promise in improved yields and other agronomic characteristics. A high-yielding very early short grain, 89-Y-103 will now undergo seed increase and expanded quality and market evaluation. Remarkably, six preliminary lines in the intermediate to late category produced yields above 12,000 pounds per acre in Glenn County last year, with one, 91-Y-581, exceeding a hefty 13,000 pounds per acre. These researchers also conducted experiments on nitrogen and potassium fertility, straw management, drill-seeding of rice, herbicide and water depth interactions and green manuring.

One of the most exciting areas of scientific research is occurring in the field of genetics. Last year a laboratory at UC Davis was completely renovated to give researchers the ability to use emerging techniques in biotechnology to explore the basic building blocks of Iife. They are at work now on a "mapping" project to identify which genes are responsible for which traits -- such as the several genes involved in stem rot resistance.

The study of rice diseases and methods for their control continues as a critical area of rice research. And the phase down of open field burning makes finding a socially acceptable and agronomically viable alternative a very high priority. Researchers have accelerated their examination of microscopic organisms, such as fungi that parasitize stem rot sclerotia, in the hope of harnessing a biological method of controlling our primary fungal disease problem. One encouraging sign is the discovery that beneficial mycoparasitic fungi are more frequent and more diverse in unburned fields. Researchers are conducting other studies that may produce recommendations on how growers might manipulate their cultural practices for better management of rice diseases.

While we're on the subject of pests, growers witnessed a moderately heavy yet highly variable infestation of rice water weevil last year. Knowledge of the insect's flight patterns is one avenue of research that scientists believe will make for better control. The section on invertebrate pests also reports on the "promising" new chemistry of two experimental insecticides, a fungus that offers hope for biological control and continuing evidence that cultural controls, such as delayed planting and weed removal, can help diminish weevil damage.

One of the reasons growers have been so successful at meeting strict water quality standards while boosting their productivity in recent years has been the herbicide Londax@. But the silver bullet has been tarnished somewhat with the discovery that resistant strains of two weeds -- California arrowhead and smallflower urnbrellaplant -- have begun to emerge. This disturbing development not only bodes uncertainty over the longevity of Londax@ but also other experimental compounds with the same mode of action.

Scientists studying weed control examined different formulations and combinations of existing herbicides. Researchers also looked at how rice fares against both broadleaf and grass weeds in water-seeded and drill-seeded systems. Their findings indicate that should herbicides ever become unavailable. rotation between water-seeded and drill-seeded rice may provide some help in combating weeds in fields where grass populations are low.

With increasing scrutiny of the chemical tools we use to control weeds and insect pests, it is imperative that we maintain a thorough understanding of what ultimately happens to pesticides once they've entered the soil. water and air. Environmental toxicologists have developed a new technique involving high-pressure liquid chromatography to help them analyze the fate of rice pesticides. They also report on the environmental behavior of several chemicals and concluded in a special study that recent unexplained diebacks in some California rice fields were most likely not related to herbicide toxicity.

With so many variables now involved in rice production, it seems that the computer age may be thrust upon us more out of necessity than out of curiosity. For a number of years, cotton growers in the San Joaquin Valley have successfully employed an "expert" computer program to help them make management decisions that will translate into maximum profits. A prototype of a similar program for rice farmers is being worked out now with the assistance of several growers in the Sacramento Valley. A part of the program that projects proper harvest date for different varieties under different atmospheric and crop moisture conditions has proven very accurate.

In the future, perhaps computers will be able to help us manage one of our most vexing problems - straw disposal. This issue is under examination from a number of perspectives. Agricultural engineers from UC Davis compared two methods of incorporating straw into the soil. They've found that one method spreading, rolling and moldboard plowing - was about 90 percent effective. Meanwhile, another group of scientists is looking at how, incorporation affects soil tilth, nitrogen nutrition and disease incidence in a crop rotation between rice and purple vetch. There are many aspects of this project under study. However, researchers have seen several patterns begin to emerge. Among them, purple vetch does not appear to affect straw decomposition. Nor has its use as a cover cop affected soil tilth. What purple vetch does do fairly convincingly is add considerable nitrogen value to the rice crop. As one might expect, stem rot incidence was lower on the burned plots used for comparison and did not increase as a result of using purple vetch.

Developing an economically viable method of straw disposal is a challenging task, but I am confident our research will pay off in the end. Meanwhile, critics of straw burning should take note of the exemplary job we rice farmers have done in minimizing its impact to the air quality of the Sacramento Valley. Once again, the agricultural burning program has successfully coordinated burning with weather conditions for maximum dispersal of rice smoke.

In regards to rice smoke, it would stand to reason that those who face the greatest exposure - rice farmers themselves would be at greatest risk. However, doctors from UC Davis who examined 450 of us have found that as a group, rice farmers can boast better respiratory health than the population as a whole. I don't point this out to diminish concerns about rice smoke, but in my opinion it does show that the Sacramento Valley's air quality problems have a whole lot more to do with automobiles than farmers.

We know we have a healthy product here in rice, but just what makes it lower cholesterol in your blood is not thoroughly understood. Scientists at USDA's regional research center in the San Francisco Bay Area are analyzing the chemical components of rice bran to provide some answers. This team of researchers is also studying the physical properties of rice used in baking and is developing a process to make rice-based pasta.

Finally, in this past year food scientists at UC Davis are at work on a project that may lead to a whole new, market for rice. It seems that rice contains a substance called oryzacystatin, which seafood processors need in the manufacture of "artificial" crabmeat or surimi. These scientists analyzed this substance in a number of rice varieties and showed that it may indeed be a more economical, reliable source of oryzacystatin for their industry.

That's a quick overview of the research funded by you, the California rice growers. From my perspective, I view this expenditure not as a sacrifice but as an investment, an investment that will ensure a prosperous future and a healthy environment in which to raise our families. Thank you for the opportunity to serve as chairman of the Rice Research Board.

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