Sustainability Report: The Greatest Yields

Green harvester cutting in rice field, blue sky background
When more (yield) means less (resources)
May 02, 2019
Report highlights:  Second in a nine-part series.

ARLINGTON, VA -- Efficiency is the bedrock of sustainability.  Rice farmers must utilize the land to its fullest while ensuring its continuing health.  Increased productivity allows farmers to feed a growing population using less water and energy and get the most out of what each acre of soil has to offer.

The U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report provides a comprehensive look at just how much U.S. rice farmers have achieved when it comes to yields.  In 1980, total national rice production was at 146 million hundredweights.  By 2015, that amount had been raised to 193 million.  But this 32 percent increase is not simply due to farmers farming more land nor is it a result of farmers employing Genetically Modified Organisms – the commercial crop is GMO-free.  Thanks to research, technological advances, and a lot of hard work within the industry, farmers have been able to grow more rice on their land than ever before.  Rice yields per acre have increased an impressive 62 percent since 1980, and that means farmers are getting more rice out of every inch of soil they till.

Why is this important? For one, it means more rice:  more food for a growing domestic population, as well as more exports to provide foreign markets with an affordable commodity that is a staple in cuisines worldwide.  It also means we have more to give back to our communities, whether it be through stimulating the local economy or donating to food banks and participating in international food aid programs.  But as much as yields are about more, they’re also about less.

By increasing yields per acre, farmers are reducing energy and water use.  Higher yields mean fewer passes in the combine, and each grain of rice takes a lot less water to grow.  The numbers speak for themselves:  during the time period covered by the study, water use has decreased by 52 percent, energy use has decreased by 34 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by 41 percent.  This proven efficiency in land use is foundational to the U.S. rice industry’s sustainability mission.

“Why would a farmer want to waste anything?” said Arkansas rice farmer Ryan Sullivan.  “It costs money to pump every gallon of water, so we are conservative in order to stay profitable.”

Innovative techniques and improvements in U.S. rice production have also reduced the time farmers spend in the fields to just seven man-hours per acre.  This is an especially significant number when compared to the 300 hours often still required for rice production in less developed countries, and it speaks to how committed our industry is to streamlining every element of the process.  The less labor that each acre requires, the more time and effort U.S. farmers can put into improving their operations and implementing new sustainability practices.

As our nine-part series covering the highlights of the U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report continues, we will explore the many innovative practices farmers have employed to make such a drastic yield increase possible, and how they plan to continue to raise yields in the future.

The full report can be found online and you can contact Steve Linscombe if you would like hard copies of the report.