NCAT Agriculture Specialist
© NCAT 2003
In general, rice planting dates, seeding rates, preferred varieties, and harvesting methods vary among regions, but they are largely the same for conventional and organic systems. The state or county Cooperative Extension Service provides such general information. This publication focuses on the special considerations relevant to organic rice production.
Organic systems avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and growth regulators. Instead they rely on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and biological pest control to maintain soil health, supply plant nutrients, and minimize insects, weeds, and other pests.
While anyone can choose to grow organically, federal regulations now control the labeling and marketing of all organic products. If you plan to represent your farm products as organic, you must be certified. To learn about the steps toward organic certification, see ATTRA's Organic Farm Certification & The National Organic Program.
Weed control and soil fertility are the principal challenges associated with organic rice production. Primary weed-control practices include crop rotations, land leveling, seedbed preparation, water management, and rotary hoeing.
To reduce weed pressure, lengthen the standard two-year rice/soybean rotation to a three-year rotation of rice/soybeans/grain crop (sorghum, wheat, corn, etc.). The longer rotation allows additional time to break weed life cycles and reduce the number of weed seeds in the soil. Other weed-control options center on the use of field flooding to suppress weeds directly and to give the crop a competitive advantage. Flooding will be more effective if fields are precision leveled. Leveling makes the water depth uniform and facilitates rapid flow onto and from the field (1).
Organic and reduced-input producers have developed some innovative means for growing rice without chemicals. Some examples follow:
Maintaining soil fertility in organic cropping typically involves some combination of crop rotation with deep-rooted legume crops or green manure/cover crops, and applying rock minerals, animal manures, composts, and other approved organic amendments. Leguminous green-manure crops can supply 30 to 50 percent of the nitrogen needs of high-yielding rice varieties. The availability of green-manure nitrogen depends on the quantity, quality, and type of green-manure crop; the time and method of application; soil fertility; and cropping method (7).
USDA researcher Dr. Seth Dabney (8) studied rice production in two Louisiana fields that had been green-manured with subterranean clover. The sub-clover provided enough nitrogen to produce high rice yields without additional nitrogen at one location, but the other required 50 pounds of additional nitrogen per acre to achieve similar yields. He also demonstrated that the sub-clover would naturally re-seed itself following no-till-planted rice. The reseeded sub-clover stands were more productive than those that were manually seeded. These results verified what other Louisiana researchers had seen in re-seeded sub-clover stands—higher re-seeded-stand densities and earlier growth commencement in the fall. In addition, clover-planting costs were eliminated with the naturally re-seeded stand.
Because rice is grown in flooded fields, insect pests are usually a minor problem. Fall armyworm and chinchbug populations can build up in the absence of flooding, but are easily controlled by a flush of water. Rice water weevil and rice stinkbugs are less affected by flooding. Timely planting, variety selection, and cultural practices to suppress weeds and encourage dense stands of rice will help control stinkbugs and water weevils (9).
Rice blast and sheath blight diseases are often controlled by appropriate variety selection. Excessive nitrogen levels, rarely a problem in organic production, can encourage sheath blight, kernel smut, and other diseases.
Organic rice is typically sold in niche and specialty markets, where it commands a price two to three times higher than that of conventionally grown rice (10). But while it sells at higher prices, organic rice also costs more to produce (11). Recent cost information, however, is difficult to find.
In 1992, the University of California Cooperative Extension Service calculated the costs of organic rice production in the Sacramento Valley for both water-seeded and no-till, drill-seeded rice (12, 13). The no-till, drill-seeded organic rice cost $653.65 per acre to produce, and the water-seeded organic rice cost $677.94 per acre.
More recently, Missouri grower Andy Turman calculated that organic rice cost $22 more per acre to produce than conventionally grown rice in 2000 (14). He attributed the difference to fertilizer shipping costs, extra tillage, and labor for hand weeding. (Turman uses furrow irrigation, rather than flood irrigation, requiring 30% to 50% less water.)
Yields from organic rice production tend to be lower than conventional yields. Turman calculated his yield to be one-third that of a conventional rice crop. Similarly, Lowell Farms of Texas estimate their organic rice yield at 50% to 60% of conventional yields (15).
While marketing organic products presents a challenge, there are some places to find buyers for your crops. Many "conventional" farm magazines and websites can be good sources of information on buyers of organic crops. The ATTRA publication Marketing Organic Grains identifies several organic grain buyers.
The Organic Consumers Association is a public-interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption. They act as a global clearinghouse for information and provide grassroots technical assistance. Their website includes information on a host of organic issues. Contact:
FarmWorld was established as a worldwide trading site for information on agricultural commodities and products. The site offers free buy/sell/trade listings in a variety of categories, including grains.
Sustainable Farming Connection provides useful information on organic farming, including links to a number of marketing resources.
agAccess Information Services offers business, marketing, and strategic planning services as well as market research. Services are oriented toward specialty and organic producers. Contact:
U.C. Cooperative Extension Rice Project
This website provides many online resources related to rice production, including diseases and pests, water quality and management, water fowl, cover crops, and weed management.
University of California
Agriculture & Natural Resources
This website identifies a number of useful sources of agricultural information, including several publications on rice.
Organic Rice Production
By Preston Sullivan
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Paul Williams, Editor
Cole Loeffler, HTML Production
This page was last updated on: August 28, 2014