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The Craft of Sustainable Rice Farming

The Isbell family of Arkansas has spent decades experimenting with new ways to grow rice. In the process, they pioneered American-grown rice for sushi and sake, along with farming techniques that can slow climate change.

Story by DAVID RAMSEY
Photography by KAT WILSON

Issues: Winter 2020

Authors: David Ramsey, Kat Wilson

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Among the numerous innovations developed at Isbell Farms, near Little Rock, Arkansas, was a concept called ”Zero grade” rice farming. A radical idea when Leroy Isbell helped pioneer it decades ago, it is now a common practice worldwide for farmers hoping to reduce water use and save on costs.

I first visited Chris Isbell’s Arkansas farm in 2014, after I learned that he was the first U.S. farmer growing and selling the world’s most prized form of sake rice, a variety called Yamada Nishiki. I was admiring Isbell’s collection of around a dozen string instruments—guitars, mandolins, fiddles—in his living room, when Isbell emerged from the kitchen to offer me a glass of sake, brewed from the Yamada Nishiki grown on his farm. Like most Americans at that time, my previous experience with sake, the signature alcoholic beverage of Japan, was limited to the inexpensive options typically available at Japanese restaurants in the U.S. The sake I tried from Isbell was an entirely different drink: crisp, complex and refreshing, with a powerful floral aroma and a vibrant taste of tropical fruit.

“I don’t particularly like it,” Isbell said. “I grew up Baptist, so it’s a little outside of my comfort zone.”

For the Isbells, experimentation is a family tradition. “I just like to think outside the box,” Chris Isbell says. “If you tell me that this is impossible, my mind goes to how to make that work.”

“I just grow rice,” he added. That’s a favorite line of Isbell’s, but it’s something of an understatement. Thirty years ago, Isbell put Arkansas on the map in the Japanese culinary world when he began growing another renowned variety of Japanese short-grain rice, Koshihikari—the elite choice for making sushi—that many once believed could only be cultivated in Japan. More recently, he has helped to revolutionize the production of high-end sake in the U.S. and other countries outside of Japan. Japanese growers do not currently ship Yamada Nishiki outside of Japan, and importing it would likely be prohibitively expensive. So a growing number of brewers making forays into the 1700-year-old art of sake production, eager to try this gold-standard variety, are now finding their way to Isbell’s farm.

“The market’s growing,” Isbell says. “I’m not talking about leaps and bounds—but it’s growing slowly every year, by a truckload or so.” Isbell has now established a profitable niche market, cultivating Yamada Nishiki on up to 100 of his 3,000 acres.

The Isbell farm is about 40 miles southeast of Little Rock, the capitol city of Arkansas. Little Rock is located around the center of the state, which is divided into regions that can feel like two different worlds. Northwest Arkansas is dominated by the mountain and hill country of the Ozarks; the land gets progressively flatter in the eastern half of the state stretching to the Delta and the Mississippi River, prime country for growing rice.

The Isbells recently used a federal grant to secure an acre of solar panels, which have produced impressive energy savings. “The less you spend on a crop, the more you make on a crop,” Chris Isbell says. “That’s what everybody’s calling sustainability. We call it common sense.”

On your way into the town of Humnoke (population 284), on Route 13, just before Rowes Chapel Baptist Church, you’ll see a sign: “AgHeritage salutes Leroy Isbell. Rice grown 60 consecutive years in this field.” Leroy, Chris Isbell’s father, passed away in 2014, and Chris now runs the farm, along with his son, son-in-law, and nephew; his wife, Judy, manages the books. The Isbell operation is one of thousands of rice farms in Arkansas, which cultivate some 1.3 million acres. It is a $4 billion industry in the state, accounting for roughly half of all the rice grown in the U.S.

Leroy Isbell originally wanted to be a veterinarian, but when World War II came along, he joined the Navy. After he returned home, the GI bill offered him $90 a month to go to agricultural school. Leroy enrolled and used that $90 a month to grow his first crop of rice. He worked the fields until he was 89 years old. In 2014, he was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame, honoring his development of a more efficient irrigation technique.

An average rice crop produces around 12 million calories per acre. “When people ask me what I do, I tell them I feed people,” Chris Isbell says.

“Just because your daddy did something a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s right!” Leroy told Rice Farming when the Isbells were named Farmers of the Year by the magazine in 1996. “Maybe you can do better.”

When I reminded Chris of this line, he smiled—his father was always skeptical of his ventures with Japanese varieties.

“I’m weird,” Chris said. “I realize I’m weird. But I don’t want to be normal. I’ll try just about anything.”

GOLDEN EARS OF RICE

“Koshi rice is to sushi rice as single malt scotch is to the scotch world,” a food blogger once wrote. But legend had it that it could only be grown in Japan.

Chris Isbell got inspired to grow sushi rice in 1988 at a rice conference in California, where he first heard about Koshihikari, which some consider the best rice for eating in the world (as one food blogger has written, “Koshi rice is to sushi rice as single malt scotch is to the scotch world”). Legend had it that it could only be grown in Japan, but Isbell ran his finger along the globe’s latitude line and figured that a Japanese variety had a shot to flourish back home in Arkansas. “We grow so much rice here, I figured we’d try,” Isbell says. “Even if it never made a dollar, I was going to try it, just to see if it was possible or not. And it grew.”

Not that it was easy. “It’s wonderful to eat and not so fun to grow,” Isbell says. “It’s hard to harvest and it’s hard to thresh. But it’s a beautiful, beautiful grain once you get it milled.”

Koshi from Isbell’s farm hit the market in 1992, the first time domestically grown Koshi was sold in the U.S. It soon became popular in Japanese immigrant communities across the country.

Algae has long been a problem in rice production so Chris Isbell partnered with researchers to find a way to turn a negative into a positive. The field that the Isbells used last year to test his idea of growing rice through the algae was the best on the farm in terms of yield and costs.

Isbell’s achievement made big news in Japan. He did more than 50 interviews with Japanese media, and Japan’s public television station NHK produced a 90-minute documentary about Isbell Farms. Buses full of Japanese tourists started showing up every month or two to get a peek at Isbell’s operation. In 1994, after Japan began allowing rice to be imported into the country, “Chris’s Rice” was marketed as 100 percent Arkansas-grown. Bags featured a cartoon of the Isbell family, with a photograph on the back of the Isbells standing out in the fields on their farm. The label read: “The family of Chris Isbell lives in this typical American rice granary where golden ears of rice stretch to the horizon.”

By 2009, California growers had come to dominate the Koshi market, and the Isbells stopped growing it. Around that time, Chris got a call from the American sake company Takara, asking about a rumor that Isbell had grown a different rice variety famous for its use in top-shelf sake.

“The guy speaks English, but not very good,” Isbell says. “He asks me if I have Yamada Nishiki. And I said, I do. He asked me again, and I said, I do. He said, you do?”

He did.

“Everybody knows how to do everything,” Chris Isbell says of the family operation. “We can weld and build stuff and do all of the thinking [on] what to plant and all of that. So they can take over and let me do a little bit of whimsical stuff.”

THE CABERNET SAUVIGNON OF RICE

Tucked away among the farm’s many fields of traditional long-grain rice, Isbell has long had a small, five-acre plot devoted to experiments with unique varieties.

“Right now, Yamada Nishiki is the king of sake rice,” says a New York expert on this drink. “It can create a really big, fruitful, almost monster of a sake.”

“Once we started with Koshi, it was just natural to try something else,” Isbell says. “So we tried a bunch of something elses. We grow a little bit of this, a little bit of that, just to look at it.” Over the years, Isbell has grown more than 50 varieties, including Italian Arborio and numerous other Asian varieties, and conducted countless experiments with crossbreeds. Dozens of bags, each holding a different variety, are crammed into a pair of large freezers in the corner of his barn.

One of those bags, which had been sitting in a freezer for years when Takara called, contained around 30 pounds of Yamada Nishiki. A representative from the company showed up two weeks later. The company was seeking a domestic grower for Yamada Nishiki, and Isbell agreed to grow the variety for half the market price in Japan.

For several years, Isbell grew and shipped Yamada Nishiki exclusively to Takara, which milled the rice and conducted myriad experiments with different yeasts and enzymes, giving Isbell feedback on how to get the rice just so.

This 80-by-80-foot structure, which serves as the farm’s barn and shop, was designed by Leroy Isbell. The Isbell family and their employees built it themselves in 1968

In the brewing process, before sake rice is fermented and eventually made into alcohol, rice is milled (or “polished”) down to the pure starch at the core of each grain. Higher-quality sake demands a more laborious milling process, polishing away 30 to 60 percent of the grain; each class of sake is determined by this mill rate. The milling removes the fats, proteins, and amino acids, so that only pure starch remains. (In Japan, small craft breweries sell the milled leftovers to bigger sake breweries to mass-produce cheaper sake.) Elite sake brewers aim to work with a small white ball of starch in the center of the grain known as shinpaku—or “white heart.”

The Isbells love to eat Koshi rice at home, with gravy, or even for breakfast with sugar and butter. But not the late Leroy Isbell. “My dad was kind of a straight down-the-road guy,” Chris Isbell says. “He was a long-grain rice guy.”

There are more than 100 varieties of sake rice, and dozens more food rice varieties used for making lower-end sake. Yamada Nishiki, one of the most expensive rice varieties in the world, originated in Hyogo prefecture in southwestern Japan. It’s a 1923 cross between Yamadaho, an older sake rice that was difficult to grow because of its height, and Tankan Watari, a sturdier sake rice variety. Part of what makes Yamada Nishiki so desirable is that it consistently contains a strong shinpaku, which makes it easier for brewers to unlock powerful flavors in the brewing process.

Like wine, sake can be produced in a huge array of styles. The bold fruity punch of the sake I tried from Chris Isbell is at one end of the spectrum; others can produce savory or herbal flavors. There are more than 1,000 sake breweries in Japan, more than the number of wineries in California.

“Right now, Yamada Nishiki is the king of sake rice,” says Ben Bell, who trained in Japan to be certified as an advanced sake professional, and was a co-founder of the Sake Brewers Association of North America. “It can create a really big, fruitful, almost monster of a sake. There’s big aromatics, big florals, big flavors. … It’s the Cabernet Sauvignon, but even more dominant. There’s a national tasting competition every year in Japan, and Yamada Nishiki has its own category just to give the other varietals of rice a chance.”

The Isbells frequently open up their farm to graduate students from the University of Arkansas and across the country. “You go to work with the Isbells to learn from the Isbells,” says Michelle Reba of the USDA, “because they’re so innovative.”

THE SAKE MOMENT?

“My grandfather undertook practices when I was just a child to reduce labor, to reduce water,” Mark Isbell says. “They would never have envisioned that it would set us up to do things like access carbon markets. So the question is what things are we doing now that are creating opportunities in the future that we can’t even imagine yet.”

Isbell continues to ship Yamada Nishiki directly to Takara, which has won gold standard awards for its sake brewed with Isbell’s rice. He now also supplies smaller craft sake breweries across the country, as well as internationally. Isbell partners with Minnesota Rice, a milling company run by Blake Richardson, a Minneapolis restauranteur who brews beer and sake. Isbell and Richardson currently supply around 15 craft sake breweries in the U.S., as well as breweries in Canada, Mexico, Norway, the U.K., and New Zealand.

Yamada Nishiki yields about half as many bushels per acre as traditional long-grain rice, but Isbell can sell it for up to eight times as much. It’s a profitable side business for Isbell at a time when prices for traditional rice and other commodity crops have been relatively low, and there’s reason to hope that the market could continue to grow. “Sake is having a moment,” Vogue declared in 2017. Sake selections are increasingly listed for food pairings and on premium wine lists in recent years; in 2019, the chef de cave of Dom Perignon stepped down to start a new project brewing sake in Japan.

Ben Bell thinks sake might have even more potential as a draw on restaurant menus than wine does. “I’ve done a lot of work with food pairing,” he says. “And the truth is, the reason there are so many books on wine pairing is because it’s hard. Wine doesn’t pair that well with food. Sake is much higher on the things that play well.” Once you add in the high level of skill that Japanese sake makers have developed in their craft, Bell says, “it’s just a matter of time until sake becomes a major presence.”

Bell, an Arkansas native and a Japanese beverage specialist in New York, hopes that someone will eventually open a sake brewery in Arkansas using Isbell’s rice. “My long-term goal is for Arkansas to be known for making quality sake and for growing quality rice, so no one would be any more surprised that Arkansas makes great sake than that Napa Valley makes great wine,” he says.

While that vision might be a long way off, Isbell’s experience with hybridizing rice has encouraged him to take the long view. “With crosses, it might be seven or eight years before you know what you’ve got,” he says. “That’s taught me to be patient and look a little farther over the hill. Things happen slow in agriculture.”

Chris Isbell has grown dozens of varieties and crossbreeds; among his recent experiments was a collaboration with the USDA Dale Bumpers Center trying to develop a medium-grain Calrose-type rice that would be able to withstand local diseases and flourish in the South.

SAVING WATER WITH RICE

In addition to their forays into unique Japanese varieties, the Isbells have also differentiated their farm with sustainable growing practices, including methods to reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Chris’s father, Leroy, is credited with pioneering a technique known as “zero grade” rice farming, which saves 30 percent or more of the water used in rice production. Because rice is typically grown on soil flooded with several inches of water, traditional rice fields have levees zig-zagging down the slope of a field to create flat rice paddies with the necessary water depth. (The most extreme version of this practice can be seen in Asia, where row after row of terraces step down steep mountainsides.)

For all of their adventures in niche markets, the Isbells’ main business remains commodity farming of long-grain rice, where volume is everything. This treated long-grain hybrid seed is ready to plant.

Leroy Isbell thought there had to be a better way. For years, he had a hunch that if the entire field was as level as a tabletop, that would lead to both faster irrigation and more control of the water level. Initially, the farm’s experiments were done by hand: measurements were made by driving stakes into the ground and painting them to signal the amount of dirt to be moved from one spot to another. (“That’s about all I’ve done all my life is move dirt,” Chris Isbell once told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette).

By the late 1970s, more precise techniques became available with the advent of laser leveling equipment. This allowed Leroy Isbell to take his idea one step further. While tinkering in his shop one day, he put a matchstick under a two-by-four to approximate the recommended slope for a rice field, then called Chris over to take a look. “Let’s just make it flat,” he said. The Isbells set the slope grade on their transmitter to zero, inspiring a new name for their operation: Zero Grade Farms.

“Every acre that we have I’ve been over every piece of it, numerous times,” Chris Isbell says. “I love that every corner has a memory. People who love their environment, they can’t love it more than the farmer does. We’re all on board the same ship.”

CUTTING GREENHOUSE GASES

The Isbells were also early adopters of another irrigation technique known as alternate wetting and drying (or AWD). Typically rice fields are kept in a constantly flooded state, the condition thought to be optimal for healthy yields. AWD, first popularized in Asia in the 1980s, allows fields to dry down temporarily to below the soil level before flooding them again. The practice, which is much easier to implement on zero grade fields, has reduced the Isbells’ water consumption by an additional 20 percent, on top of the 30 percent saved through zero grade leveling. Research suggests that, with careful attention to timing, these water savings can accrue without any harm to yield.

Graduate students conducting research on methane emissions are frequent visitors on Isbell’s farm. “If we can reduce that [methane emissions] without hurting the yield of rice, that’s a pretty humungous change,” says Ben Runkle, a professor of biological engineering at the University of Arkansas.
“I know the public perception of greenhouse gasses, we’re aware of that,” Chris Isbell says. “We stand able to do something about it whereas the average person can’t.”

When a small number of Arkansas farmers began experimenting with AWD around six years ago, they learned from researchers that the technique also significantly reduces the amount of methane emitted by rice fields. Methane is roughly 30 times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas, and growing rice—the staple food for more than 3 billion people—produces 11 percent of the planet’s human-caused methane. In a flooded field, the soil is deprived of oxygen, creating a rich environment for microbes that release methane. “If you break that flood by having a drying cycle,” says Michelle Reba, the lead scientist for the USDA’s Delta Water Management Research Unit, “you’re going to drastically reduce those methanogens.”

To study the effects of AWD on methane, Reba and her research partners at the University of Arkansas erected meteorological towers on certain fields on the Isbell farm. An array of sensors on the 12-feet-tall towers measure fluxes of CO2, water, heat, and methane in the air, on fields treated with AWD versus those grown with conventional techniques. This ongoing study, the first to measure the impact of AWD on commercial fields, found that AWD reduced methane emissions by more than 60 percent.

In 2017, the Isbells joined three other farms in Arkansas, two in California, and one in Mississippi, to become the first farmers to sell carbon credits for rice production. After a detailed verification process, the credits were purchased by Microsoft to offset the company’s own emissions as part of a California cap-and-trade program.

CONNECTING WITH CONSUMERS

Chris Isbell remains proud of the carbon credit achievement, but the costly verification process, and the relatively low prices for carbon credits, meant that the sale of credits had a negligible impact on rice farmers’ bottom line. “It was a great experience, but the hard reality of it was that it was not particularly lucrative,” says Mark Isbell, Chris’s son.

The Isbells often host visitors and researchers interested in their practices from around the world. “We never say no,” Chris Isbell says. “Sometimes we end up learning something really important.”

But the Isbells are not discouraged. Mark Isbell and Reba both work on a committee developing a rice farming sustainability standard for the U.S., which could eventually be used for a seal similar to the organic label. “Globally, rice makes up 20 percent of the calories consumed,” says Mark, who also serves on the U.S.A. Rice Federation Sustainability Committee. “If consumers want the ability to benefit sustainable practices through their choices and purchasing, rice is a fantastic place to do that.” One path forward could be innovations allowing more automated documentation and verification—including remote depth sensors and satellite technology.

In the meantime, Isbell Farms is working to share its story with consumers interested in making ethical choices about their food. This includes partnering with Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies. Unilever is now marketing sustainable products and has made the Isbell farm its “landmark farm” for sustainably grown rice.

Chris Isbell continues to innovate and experiment. Isbell and Reba, along with a researcher from the University of Arkansas, recently secured a federal grant to test an idea Chris had to grow rice through a protective mat of algae, which could dramatically increase water savings and further reduce methane emissions.

For Isbell, communicating the story of his family’s farm is part of a broader mission. “There used to be a common ground between the consumer and the farmer,” he says. “The farmer was the good guy—now, in certain areas, the farmer has become the bad guy. I’d like to help patch that up.”

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