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Growing rice, healing the soil: Project tests new method in southern US

The Town Talk (Alexandria) logo The Town Talk (Alexandria) 9/30/2020 Melinda Martinez, Alexandria Town Talk
a man sitting on the side of a road: Konda Mason, owner of the non-profit Justice Jubilee, drove from California with her crew drove to began the experimental rice growing project at Inglewood Farms using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method. © MELINDA MARTINEZ Konda Mason, owner of the non-profit Justice Jubilee, drove from California with her crew drove to began the experimental rice growing project at Inglewood Farms using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method.

Can rice be grown in the southern United States using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method? 

The SRI method of rice production uses much less water than the traditional way.  

That's the question Konda Mason sought to answer when she leased two acres on the outskirts of Alexandria to grow 18 varieties of rice using the SRI method.

"I ran into a friend of mine who has a company," said Mason who leased land from Inglewood Farms. "And she is getting her rice from farmers, primarily in Asia and some in Africa, that are growing rice in a different way. And it's a sustainable way."

Last December, Mason and her crew drove from California to began the experimental project. Two other pilot farmers in Mississippi were also participating in the project.

"My company is Jubilee Justice," said Mason. "It's a non-profit that I founded recently to actually start this rice project."

Mason has a relationship with the Keller family who owns Inglewood Farms. She met owner Elizabeth Keller a few years ago at a retreat, or journey as Mason calls it, in California. The retreat was held by another one of Mason's companies.

In the following years, Mason visited Inglewood from time to time and held two journeys there.

a woman sitting on a bench: Angela Sevin drove from California with her friend Konda Mason, owner of the non-profit Justice Jubilee, to support her in a rice growing project using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method. © Melinda Martinez Angela Sevin drove from California with her friend Konda Mason, owner of the non-profit Justice Jubilee, to support her in a rice growing project using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method.

The journeys had to do with the healing of the land being a former plantation.

"The work that we do is around healing society," said Mason. "Healing, of course, the planet."

"This land is organic," said Mason of Inglewood Farms. The farms in Mississippi are not currently organic but are going organic for the project.   Is this sentence missing a "but"?

Overall, Mason said using the SRI method in Louisiana and Mississippi has been successful.

"The rice was abundant," said Mason. "We made mistakes. We learn from our mistakes. It's a trial."

Typically, growing rice involves using lots of water but the SRI method uses much less.

"When you think of rice, you think of a lot of water," said Mason explaining why she became interested in the SRI method. "Within that water, there are microbes. And those microbes off-gas methane."

The off-gassing of methane contributes to climate change, she said.

"And so, in agriculture - agriculture is a big contributor to climate change," said Mason. "And one of the biggest parts of that is the production of rice. So the growing of rice has a very negative impact on the climate and on us."

"And just like we're getting away from fossil fuels and getting into solar," said Mason. "I think of SRI rice as the same as solar is to fossil fuels."

Rice, said Mason, is one of the biggest crops in the world.

"All over Asia, all over Africa, all over South America," said Mason. "Everybody eats a lot of rice. It's billions of people's staple food."

Mason added that the U.S. is the fifth largest rice producer in the world with Arkansas, California and South Carolina being some of the biggest rice producers in the country.

But there are very few people scattered throughout the U.S. who grow rice using the SRI method, said Mason.

The SRI method was developed in Madagascar and has been around since the 1980s.

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York became aware of the SRI method, said Mason, and started teaching people in Asian countries and Africa to use it.

"There are literally hundreds of thousands of farmers who grow rice this way," she said.

"So then, when this idea to partner with some folks to do this rice project, that partnering involved the technical assistance from Cornell University," said Mason. "When I decided to do that, it was obvious that I needed to be headquartered here."

"It's a really, really amazing method of growing rice," said Iriel Edwards, project manager.

Edwards and Christopher Jarreau were the ones who took off and started the project, said Mason.

"Sometimes it's practiced in a flooded paddy field but you flood your fields intermittently instead of keeping them flooded," said Edwards.

"It's a really, really amazing method of growing rice," said Iriel Edwards, project manager. All the rice using the SRI method was planted by hand, said Edwards. "It's a 'by hand' sort of deal until we figure out how to mechanize it," said Edwards. "We did it all organically." © Melinda Martinez "It's a really, really amazing method of growing rice," said Iriel Edwards, project manager. All the rice using the SRI method was planted by hand, said Edwards. "It's a 'by hand' sort of deal until we figure out how to mechanize it," said Edwards. "We did it all organically."

Edwards is a West Monroe native and recent Cornell University graduate who double majored in environmental sciences and sustainability and entomology. 

"SRI is typically done with small holder farmers in say, West Africa or India," explained Edwards. "And here in the states, agriculture is all about big machines - it's the conventional way of farming. Heavy uses of fertilizers and pesticides."

She became involved in the SRI method through Erika Styger who is the associate director for climate resilient farming systems at Cornell University and an expert in the SRI method. Edwards worked with Styger on an ethnobotany project with rice varieties that had been collected.

"And I just worked with her on that project in a greenhouse growing different types of rice, taking measurements - stuff like that," said Edwards.

It was Styger who told the Louisiana native about the project she was getting involved with at Inglewood Farms that drew Edwards' attention. She sent Styger emails asking about her trips to Louisiana.

"I was also just graduating and eventually our conversations just became, 'We actually need somebody here on the ground for the project. Would you be interested?' and I was definitely interested," said Edwards. "And then in April, when the colleges shut down from COVID, I thought, 'Why not come down here and start working?'"

This project has been both different and a challenge for her.

"This is my first time growing rice by myself outdoors, with of course, lots of consulting and help," she said. 

"I've been counting and tending to my 'rice babies'," said Edwards with a laugh. "For a handful of months now."

All the rice using the SRI method was planted by hand, said Edwards.

So the question becomes how it can be made easy for people to practice while also getting to reap the benefits of SRI organic specialty varieties of rice, said Edwards.

"It's a 'by hand' sort of deal until we figure out how to mechanize it," said Edwards. "We did it all organically."

"What I love about this project is that this kind of rice growing is better suited for small farmers. This is not big ag. This is anti-big ag actually," said Mason. 

"It's a really, really amazing method of growing rice," said Iriel Edwards, project manager. All the rice using the SRI method was planted by hand, said Edwards. "It's a 'by hand' sort of deal until we figure out how to mechanize it," said Edwards. "We did it all organically." © Melinda Martinez "It's a really, really amazing method of growing rice," said Iriel Edwards, project manager. All the rice using the SRI method was planted by hand, said Edwards. "It's a 'by hand' sort of deal until we figure out how to mechanize it," said Edwards. "We did it all organically."

At Inglewood, the rice completely on dry land. This method also involves the plants farther apart, said Edwards, which give them more room. There are also certain techniques used in how the plants are watered which involves no flooding.

"And you can get a greater yield out of one plant when it is able to tiller out," she said. "So it's less seed, less water, more rice essentially. Pretty cool. I love it."

"Knowing that there's so much evidence for the system already," she said. "We wanted to see which varieties that we had collected would do the best in this environment."

Eighteen varieties of rice were planted over an acre.

"We pretty much just tracked their development from the time that they were transplants up until harvest," said Edwards.

One seed, said Mason, can yield 50 to 100 percent more than traditional rice growing.

"Louisiana has a really, really long growing season so that means you can get two crops out of your rice," said Edwards. "It also means that the pest pressure, the disease pressure and the weed pressure is very high."

Mason was impressed with how well the rice withstood Hurricane Laura because she heard other farmers who grow rice the traditional way had lost crops.

Hurricanes, said Mason, can bring too much water that leads to fungus and mold.

"The hurricane was a test of the SRI method," said Mason, adding that not one plant was lost.

"The plants leaned with the wind but they were solid, resilient and stronger than traditional rice plants," she said.

The SRI method, said Mason, is linked to what she calls "regenerative agriculture."

"It's about not harming but helping," she said. "And regenerative agriculture is about the soil."

"When soil is healthy, it actually captures carbon from the atmosphere so instead of the carbon being in the atmosphere causing global warming, the soil captures it because the soil needs carbon," said Mason. "And healthy soil actually helps to reverse global warming and climate change."

Soil, said Mason, is the key to life, the key to farming and the key to planting.

"It's the key to your gut, what you put in your food," she said. "Soil is dead in this country. Big ag, all the chemicals - the soil is dead. We have to bring soil back to life. That's the practice that we're doing here."

a person sitting on top of a metal fence: Angela Sevin drove from California with her friend Konda Mason, owner of the non-profit Justice Jubilee, to support her in a rice growing project using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method. © Melinda Martinez Angela Sevin drove from California with her friend Konda Mason, owner of the non-profit Justice Jubilee, to support her in a rice growing project using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method.

This article originally appeared on Alexandria Town Talk: Growing rice, healing the soil: Project tests new method in southern US

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