Developing rice as a Midwestern crop
Dr. Michael Schlappi, a professor at Marquette University, started Red Stone Rice in Wisconsin in 2017 as the next step of his research on cold tolerant rice varieties. If you think this is an unusual geography for rice, you are correct! Crop research typically corresponds to the environment where food plants are grown, and for rice, the locations are generally very warm.“More than 50% of domestic rice production occurs in Arkansas. The rest is grown in Texas, Louisiana, California, and Missouri,” Michael said.
Michael’s study of rice in a cold climate grew from research on how flowering times are regulated in plants. Previously, he looked at these mechanisms in a weedy model plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, but switched to rice to help develop a specialty crop in the region.
These efforts are responsive to the realities of our changing climate. Domestic rice production will likely be severely reduced in its current primary growing regions due to water shortages. The Midwest has ample water resources, and the explorations of Michael and the farmers he works with are helping create a model and foothold for rice in a cold climate.
Michael received USDA funding to investigate cold stress tolerance response mechanisms in rice, which allowed him to identify cold tolerant rice cultivars. Rice from Southern Russia, Northern China, or even Spain and Italy have characteristics of interest that are potentially useful to our region’s growing conditions.
Red Stone Rice is on the Mequon Nature Preserve, the site of a former farm. Interestingly, the land was drained for farming, and now, wetlands are being regenerated for rice farming. The two-acre paddy is subdivided into 10 smaller paddies, three of which are farmed by Hmong farmers who began to settle here as refugees after the Vietnam War. The Fondy Food Center, an organization that provides land and services to farmers who lack traditional access to land, helped establish Red Stone Rice and connect Michael with these farmers.
Planting, harvest, and handling on small plots looks much different from commercial domestic rice production.
This creates five rows of rice per pass through the paddy. After transplantation shock, the plants settle in one to two weeks. The paddies remain flooded the whole season, and must be hand weeded because of their size.
Specialized small-scale rice production equipment was purchased from Japan with the help of a strategic innovation grant from Marquette University. Erik Andrus, who grows rice in Vermont, helped Michael to import these essential tools. As is the case with growing other grains at a small scale, the Northeast provides valuable partnership for Midwest pursuits, and Michael considers Erik not just his collaborator, but his friend. Erik's Boundbrook Farm details the year of rice production nicely, and helps visualize work at Red Stone Rice.
Once the Wisconsin growing season is through in mid-October the land is drained, and using a small harvester, the crop is brought to the barn and dried down from about 21-25% moisture to 14%. The farm has a dehuller to remove the outer rice hulls, and a polisher to remove the bran and create white rice when desired. Red Stone mostly sells brown rice with the bran intact.
AGC was one of the partners for a Rice Production Field Day at Michael’s fields in September 2022. Michael also spoke at the 2023 UW-Madison OGRAIN Organic Grain Conference alongside Tim Hemminger from Ancient Brands – a recording of that conversation is linked below. Michael is eager for more opportunities to educate the public about Red Stone’s work and recruit potential volunteers and collaborators such as rice flour millers and brewers making gluten-free beer or sake.
We're very glad to have Michael as another innovator in our network!