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Mark Isbell and the Future of Rice Sustainability

From “hell and destruction” in the early days of the Isbell farm to a successful venture in the 21st century, Mark Isbell of North Little Rock, Ark., traces the perils and pitfalls of the Isbell farm. Today, this rice farmer recognizes the innovations of his ancestors for some early efforts that contribute to success today.

“We grow about 3,500 acres of rice in Lonoke County in central Arkansas, and it’s 100 percent zero grade,” he explained. “We don’t have any levees and that is one thimark isbellng that started back before I was born. It has been a huge benefit to all of us. I was able to stay completely dry this morning because I could manage the water from my pickup truck instead of having to slog across the field. I’m super grateful to my granddad, Leroy Isbell, and dad, Chris Isbell, for those past efforts.”

His family’s farm is 100 percent zero grade due to those early decisions, and that makes it easier to manage a continuous rice system today.

“We have tracks on our combines, and we try to keep the fields in good enough shape so we can come in the next spring and do minimum work,” he continued. “This year we’re probably over 50 percent no till and using an air seeder drill. However, unfortunately, you run into those situations where you have fields that do have to be touched up, and we have a number of those too. Until several years ago we did a lot of water seeding which was always a good approach for us because it was how we managed red rice before some of the newer technologies. Then Clearfield technology came along. For many years we had already grown rice behind rice, but this technology provided a new tool.”

Nothing but rice is grown here.

“We’ve grown rice behind rice for as long as I’ve been alive,” Isbell states. “One field now dates back to 55 years of continuous rice, so that defines us. We grow rice behind rice on zero grade and we try to use new and innovative practices. We are open to researchers and anyone who wants to try new things on our farm.”

Agriculture had changed dramatically in recent decades, and one thing that changed it as much as anything is GPS. GPS is everywhere now, on phones, in cars directing drivers to locations. However, for agriculture, GPS is huge.

“I remember as a child my father would flag airplanes everyday; and as it wore on we developed a system where we could do that from our trucks,” he recalled. “We would measure out steps like that, and I remember riding with dad when he did that. That took a lot of time away from normal farming efforts, just to get the airplanes to treat the areas they needed to treat. GPS has completely taken that away, it’s been huge.”

Today GPS is in tractors, combines and other machinery, providing auto steer which has made it possible to be more efficient. That’s been a big thing for farmers, but it is just a beginning.

“Water management is another effort we focus on,” Isbell said. “We’re part of a group that is working on a pilot project aimed at alternate wetting and drying (AWD). This is a practice where, rather than maintaining a complete flood for the duration of the crop, we allow at least one dry down during the growing season. There are a lot of benefits to this, one being water savings up to 18 percent on top of zero grade, which already saves basically 30 percent or more of the water usage. Together, these two practices can net some 50 percent of water savings over traditional methods. We haven’t perfectly figured it out yet, but we are studying it. We’ve done it on a small scale, but we have friends across the state that have done it on a much larger scale and it’s promising.

“The other benefit of AWD is it also mitigates some of the methane that comes off of the rice field,” he pointed out. “We are working with researchers right now who have found markets for that; so by growing rice with less methane emissions than the traditional, you create an offset that is marketable. We hope that that’s not only another income source, but it can set farms that do that apart with a product that may be slightly more desirable to consumers.”

Like most farmers, Isbell charts planting dates, but he realizes that often the plan developed in the beginning of the year cannot be followed.

“You’re always running your contingency plan it seems,” he stated. “However, we look for the first and second week of April to plant rice. This year, as of about June 12, I was looking at the spreadsheet with all of our planting dates and applications, and at that time we had rice that was 70 days old and rice that was 7 days old. So, as all farmers know, weather determines almost everything. It was a very trying spring in terms of getting the crop in the ground so what that caused is very spread out planting dates across the entire farm, and it makes it really difficult to manage water on part of the farm when you’re still planting the other.

“The same will be true of harvest. We’ll still be watering rice when we pull into some of the earlier fields with the combines. So with such few people – it’s basically just family and a couple of other people on our farm – that really spreads everyone out when we’re having to take care of several things at the same time.”
The Isbell farm is almost exclusively heavy buckshot clay. A few fields go to lighter soils that do O.K., but most of the farm is a heavy buckshot clay which causes them to gravitate toward rice without even considering anything else.

“This ground wants to grow rice, so the decision was made years ago to farm with the land instead of just on it. I’ve never seen a soybean planted on the farm, but then it’s extremely difficult to water soybeans on that type of clay, so that was one of the driving decisions that pushed us toward zero grade in the past. There’s really not an alternate crop that we want to go with besides rice. So we just focus on rice because of this soil type.

The farm dates back to Isbell’s great grandfather, Bud Isbell, who grew some cotton and subsistence food for his family in the early days.

“A story comes up in the family from time to time that reminds us how things happened,” he recalled. “In the late 1920s, my great-grandfather harvested what little cotton he had and I think the price was like a nickel a pound at the time. He had put up some food for his family, had a pig or a cow, some chickens and enough garden produce, but the cotton was the only cash crop. With the prices lower than he expected, he decided he would just put his cotton in storage for the year. He would wait for the next year to sell it. The next year rolls around, he harvests that year’s cotton crop and the price falls to 4 cents a pound, so he decides to sell last year’s and this year’s cotton. He puts the money in the bank and a week or two later the bank goes under. He found a way to make it, and that is a good story to remember when we face obstacles.

“He was a man of few words, and his journal included just one or two lines per year about what he had produced or how things were going. For 1930 I believe it just says ‘hell and destruction, plenty of corn.’”

Isbell’s grandfather started rice farming after coming back from World War II in the mid 1940s. With agriculture as his background, he wanted to grow the farm so he began working in rice and growing that part of the business. He was an innovator, and sometime around the late 1970s, he started working with laser equipment and saw the potential of leveling fields to zero grade to increase the efficiency of rice growing. So he pioneered this practice that has become widely adopted today.

In the late 1990s, 10 to 15 years later, Isbell’s father, Chris, worked with Japanese varieties, making this farm the first known to commercially produce a particular variety outside of Japan.

“We then sold that variety back into Japan once the market opened up,” Isbell said. “It was a unique product from the United States, as opposed to products that went into food services they were accepting from other countries at the time. It was sold on the shelf as a U.S. origin product, with a picture of the farm on the bag. That is part of our history and it taught me a lot to see a bigger part of the world and how rice moves around the world, how business is done in different locations.

“Now we’ve moved back toward long grain varieties, because of the economics of it in recent years,” Isbell added. “However, we still try to reach out to innovative things and we’re looking at a number of different opportunities now.

“If there’s one thing that’s a strength for our farm it would be not that we’re especially creative but we’re open to collaborating with others. So when a researcher comes to the farm and asks to try something, our answer is not only ‘yes’ but ‘yes, and let’s try this too.’ Let’s go above that and try something else. So we’ve always been open to those kinds of scenarios and that has helped us create relationships with people and it’s helped us learn new things. We’ve found that to be very helpful.”

Isbell said that with the alternative wetting and drying and other work they’re doing with greenhouse gases on the farm, his hope is to be able to communicate to the broader public and other farmers that sustainability isn’t exactly what the general public necessarily thinks it is.

“For my great grandad, sustainability was just making it to the next year and taking care of his family.  Some years in agriculture are still like that.  But now I’m afraid that society thinks that sustainability means going back to the past and adopting the same types of farming practices used back then,” he said. “There’s a picture in the Art Institute in Chicago called American Gothic, and it’s the one with the old guy with the pitchfork and his wife in front of a farmhouse. I wonder sometimes if some people view sustainability like that, as going back to a world where everybody has to plow with a mule and plant with their hands; but I think what we need from that time period isn’t their technologies and practices, but their spirit of resourcefulness and their focus on making things better for the next generations. I think what the data will show is that sustainability really comes at a scale where we do use technology, where we do use tractors, and apply them to modern farming techniques in the right way to get a lot more efficiency. I think that’s good for the world at large and I think it’s good for farming, and hopefully it is good for our great-grandchildren somewhere down the line.”

Source: Mid-America Farmer Grower

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Terry Simmons