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How researchers are trying to grow an unusual urban crop: Rice

Urban farmer Nazirahk Amen, left, and Che Axum, director of urban ariculture and gardening education for the University of the District of Columbia, walk among their experiments in dry-land rice at UDC’s Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

As a child in Northeast Washington, Mchezaji “Che” Axum recalls, he snacked on rice with milk and sugar. And his colleague Nazirakh Amen grew up in Louisiana, home of gumbo and etouffee, where, he proclaims — striking a fist on his desk for emphasis — “You don’t. Eat. A meal. That doesn’t have rice.”

Today, Axum directs the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education at the University of the District of Columbia; Amen runs Purple Mountain Organics and Wisdom Path Healing Center, both in Takoma Park; and the two are collaborating on a project based on rice — a local project with global implications.

Instead of growing rice in the familiar paddies, they are conducting a three-year study in growing it just as you’d raise wheat or eggplant or apples: that is, on dry land. They’re doing it on a farm connected with one of the country’s smallest land-grant universities, and the only one based in a city. The goal: to produce a nutrient-dense crop that can be grown in urban areas.

In recent years, conventionally grown rice has been connected to some disturbing effects: high levels of arsenic and lead, lavish water use, rice paddies that produce more methane than cattle feedlots do.

In truth, rice doesn’t require those troublesome paddies. Farmers flood their fields chiefly because rice can grow underwater but most weeds cannot.

So some farmers have tried varieties of rice adapted to dry upland areas. Others have reduced pesticide use or the size of paddies. Still others employ the low-water, high-yield System of Rice Intensification developed in Madagascar.

A few years ago, Amen and Axum started to discuss small-scale grain production and its role in maintaining a dependable local food supply. Amen submitted a successful research proposal to CAUSES — the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences at UDC. Administrators there were intrigued.

“We were asking the question, could you grow rice in the District of Columbia, in the Mid-Atlantic region, and could you grow it in a small space?” recalls Sabine O’Hara, dean of CAUSES and director of UDC’s land-grant programs. They also wanted to grow it without disturbing the dense urban ecosystem: no standing water that could breed mosquitos, no pesticides that might contaminate water or air.

Che Axum inspects the results of his experiments in dry-land rice at UDC's Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The Nutrient Dense Rice Project, as it’s officially called, uses a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to track and compare the growth of two rice varieties — the Russian Duborskian...

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