Rice plants snorkel to survive drought conditions
By: Kathleen Phillips
BEAUMONT – Boiling temperatures have Texas rice producers simmering in anticipation as the crop nears harvest, according to state agriculture officials.
“With clear days and only a little bit of cloud cover and high temperatures, what that does is result in a greater amount of water use by the crop,” said Dr. Ted Wilson, Texas AgriLife Research-Beaumont center director. “And that translates into greater pumping costs because you are getting water from the ground as opposed to from the canal.”
But the rice plant itself is engineered in a way that helps it survive, Wilson said, likening it to a snorkel.
“When I think about the physiology of rice, it has specialized tubes that actually pump oxygen from the atmosphere at the top of the plant or above the water down into the roots,” he explained. “So they are pretty much like a snorkeler. That helps it survive under an environment that is not conducive to most plants.”
That may help make the difference for the crop which is produced primarily in southeast Texas.
“We’ve had maybe 19 inches of rain,” Wilson said. “Normally, this part of Texas gets an average of 64 inches of rain a year. So as you can imagine, this has a profound effect on the local water supply.”
But how that impacts rice is too early to tell. Wilson noted that rice farmers flush their fields with water during early stages of growth, so the crop tends to not suffer as much as other crops may, but the cost of pumping water to maintain the crop is costly for growers who must weigh the decision on potential yield.
Wilson said water is “the lifeblood of agriculture and particularly for rice,” an analogy all the more obvious in this drought year which has yielded anemic crops throughout Texas.
“If you grow rice, you are either pumping a lot (from the ground) or you are using surface water from the irrigation canals,” he said.
He said the crop is generally a little shorter and on average a little late in terms of maturity compared to the 2010 crop. But how this year’s rice harvest turns out is yet to be seen. Wilson said the 2010 crop was one of the worst and the 2009 was one of the best on record.
“It’s too early to know, but we suspect yields are going to be much better than last year,” Wilson said. “But I can’t say what they will be compared to the great yields of 2009.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week estimated that 15 percent of the Texas rice crop is in excellent condition, 46 percent is fair and 37 percent is good. About 178,000 acres are expected to be harvested in the state, beginning at the end of July, according to the latest figures from the Texas Agricultural Statistics Service.
Photo: Rice at Texas AgriLife Research Center near Beaumont in July. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips.)