H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station: Nucleus for rice innovation in Louisiana

Derek Albert

From its beginnings a century ago as a 60-acre farm, the present-day 1,040-acre H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station has become the nucleus for rice innovation in Louisiana.

Home to a conglomeration of minds who strive to improve the rice industry from rural Acadia Parish to the global market, the Rice Research Station has become a landmark in a community that owes its viability to the ubiquitous grain crop.

“Rice for this region is an economic engine,” said Dustin Harrell, professor and the station’s resident coordinator. “It creates a lot of jobs, and it’s part of the community. The Rice Research Station’s main job is to make sure that industry remains strong into the next century.”

The station began as an idea to help rice maintain a foothold along the prairieland of southwest Louisiana. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Louisiana Legislature, the State Board of Agriculture and the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station pooled resources to create a hub for rice research and variety development. The constituents of Acadia Parish and the town of Crowley — dubbed “The Rice Capital of America” — also recognized the importance of establishing a facility dedicated to the sustainability of the rice industry. In 1908, the Acadia Parish Police Jury and the people of Crowley contributed a combined $6,500 for the purchase of the original 60-acre farm and a five-room house that served as a beginning for the now sprawling complex.

The Rice Research Station was established on April 1, 1909, with a mission to test introduced varieties of rice for earliness of maturity, quality and yielding power to discover and produce varieties better than those being grown at the time. The station was also designed to determine methods of cultivation, including irrigation and drainage, that could increase the yield and quality of grain, control weeds and maintain the fertility of the soil.

Since its inception 112 years ago, the original 60-acre farm has grown to 1,040 acres and includes a main campus just north of Crowley and the South Farm, which is home to one of the nation’s largest crawfish production research facilities. At that 400-acre site, the Rice Research Station’s weed science and rotational crop research also are conducted. Just a couple miles north near the Interstate 10 corridor is the epicenter of the research facility.

At the main campus, state-of-the-art laboratories dot the landscape. The grounds are home to breeding and biotech labs, including the latest addition, a genetic marker lab, where new varieties of rice make it from the drawing boards to the on-site greenhouses. Once the rice varieties are developed, planted and harvested, the crop’s bounty is processed at the station’s full-scale commercial rice mill, as well as a laboratory milling facility for post-harvest yield analyses. The station’s agronomy laboratory houses a bevy of apparatuses used to analyze chemical element gases in the facility’s sprawling rice fields.

“We are about the size of a small farm,” Harrell said. “But all of our equipment is a lot smaller, specialized for research.”

Harrell said the Rice Research Station employs 50 people year-round with about 15 joining the ranks for seasonal work during the summer. In some cases, multiple generations of different families have returned to the facility to work in one of the varied enterprises.

“The people who work at the Rice Research Station are a tight-knit group,” Harrell said. “We think of ourselves as a family.”

Fourth generation Evangeline Parish rice producer and chairman of the Louisiana Rice Research Board, Richard Fontenot, said the station is vital to maintaining the viability of the rice industry for the future.

“We have to have adequate research and variety development that allow us to adapt our agricultural practices so that we can produce rice for generations to come,” Fontenot said.

The community gets a closer look at the research projects with an annual field day each June at the Rice Research Station. Both Harrell and Fontenot have been instrumental in hosting the event. It has become known as the largest of its type in the state, welcoming hundreds of rice growers, consultants and rice industry professionals from in state, out of state and other countries.

“It allows us to shine a little light on what we’re doing at the station, around the station and around the state with our various researchers,” Fontenot said. “It allows us to showcase the efforts of the LSU AgCenter as it relates to rice and share that with the rest of the world.”

Harrell said the event’s success is a testament to how vital the facility is to the industry.

“It really shows how tightly we are connected to the growers, the consultants and the rice industry,” Harrell said.

During station’s 112 years in operation, the research staff has developed 57 unique varieties of rice that have been planted across the nation and around the globe. The facility was the birthplace of technological breakthroughs, including the Clearfield lines that allow growers to treat their fields with herbicides without harming the rice plants. The progress in this area is ongoing because disease, weed and insect pressure continues to push developers toward new varieties that can withstand or stave off those pressures.

“The lifetime of a variety is not infinite. It is important that we keep improving genetics,” Harrell said.

Likewise, the methods of planting and developing a viable, productive crop are ever-changing. The facility covers the many facets of planting, managing and harvesting a crop in its operations through the agronomy project, which Harrell oversees. The evolution of planting rice has developed from drill seeding during the industry’s infancy, to aerial seeding around the mid-20th century and back to drill seeding as the method seems to regain feasibility with modern developments, like Clearfield technology, which was developed at the Rice Research Station.

Derek Albert is an assistant communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article appears in the fall 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Alt text: 4 rice dryers in a row

A main component of what makes the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station so valuable to rice growers is the facility’s Foundation Seed Program, which produces up to 170,000 pounds of rice seed to be annually dispersed to farmers. The Foundation Seed facility’s four 1,200-barrel rice bins serve as a brief stop for rice varieties developed at the station before getting planted across the nation. Photo by Derek Albert

Alt text: the rice building at the Rice Station

Another view of the Foundation Seed Program facility. Photo by Derek Albert

11/24/2021 3:33:50 PM
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