In 2014 I’m goint to try growing rice in the UK, and the following post describes why, and how I’m going to do it. I’m sure that it has been tried by somebody, somewhere, but I have no idea if anybody has made it work yet. It’s not something that I’ve ever come across before, and my only thoughts up until recently has been the possibility of growing wild rice. That changed when I read The Resilient Farm and Homestead, by Ben Falk, who is one of a number of people growing rice in Vermont, USA. Using rice from Hokkaido, the northernmost Island in Japan, growers in vermont are harvesting marketable quantities of rice. I immediately decided that I wanted to give I a try. So another project has been germinated, or hatched.
Rice Related Research
I have done a bit less research than I would normally, as I had already decided to give growing rice a try. The variety that seems to be working in Vermont is ‘Hayayuki’, and so my first task was to try and get hold of some. That has so far failed miserably. Nobody that I contacted in Vermont bothered to reply. An acquantance in Japan replied once, and then nothing. A relatively well known Permaculturalist in Japan didn’t reply.
Growing Rice in the UK: Climate
The obvious reason for not growing rice in the UK is our climate, but my reading reduced that down to two specific limiting factors.
- The relatively short frost free growing season.
- Sterility due to low temperatures at flowering.
There are likely to be other factors to consider, but I’ll deal with those as they become apparent.
Growing Rice in the UK: Frost
In Vermont, Ben Falk has a frost free growing season that is too short for rice, and therefore their crop is started off under cover, and planted out. Here in the UK, and here on the East coast in particular, we can have frost as late as Early June, and as early as late September. I will have to use the same method of starting seedlings off in a frost free enviroment, prior to planting out. I do not know what the minimum temperatures that the seedlings will tolerate, and that’s something that I need to look at when things settle down in the New Year.
Growing Rice in the UK: Low Flowering Temperatures
One of my research strands identified that if temperatures are low at flowering, this will lead to sterility. I’ve lost the original link, but I think that the critical temperature was about 18 Centigrade. For growers with a more continental climate, that’s not likely to be such a problem, but with our maritime climate, cool damp periods in summer are a possibility. Whilst this would lead to little or no rice, I was not deterred.
My Cunning plan for Growing Rice in the UK
Having thought about the two climate related problems I came up with a number of potential solutions. Ben Falk starts his seedlings growing in a greenhouse/polytunnel, and that seems the most obvious thing to do here too. he started with a very small quantity of seed, and to bulk up the seed he describes growing the rice seedlings in 5 gallon buckets. His book mentions that each bucket produces enough seed to grow 50 lbs of rice. I misread that initially, thinking that each bucket was producing 50 lbs of rice. That wasn’t the case. The seed from each bucket, planted the following year, would produce a crop of 50 lbs. Whilst I want to grow my rice outside, this gives me an option to grow some undercover. It also would alllow me to grow some outside, but have the ability to move some undercover at flowering, should the temperatures fall.
I already have tentative plans for a pond on the south side of what will eventually be a large greenhouse (for extra reflected light and water storage). Although rice doesn’t need to be immersed in water, having an area where my ducks can build fertility all winter, and then grow rice in the summer, is very appealing. With a second pond for summer use, I can continue to provide water for my ducks, and gather mud and nutrients for my polytunnel. In Autumn after rice harvest (ever the optimist), I can top off all of my compost heaps with mud from the larger pond, and use it for ducks again.
Looking at the benefits, I’m not too worried if I canot get a rice crop every year, and am aware that I may never do so, but even f there is no grain, it’s a great way of getting additional straw for my poultry, and for composting.
Obtaining a Suitable Rice Variety
As so often seems to happen in my life, once I have decided on a course of action, solutions present themselves fortuitously. In this case it was a conversation with Chris Evans, the permaculturalist, not the TV and radio personality. Chris founded and helps to run the Himalayan Permaculture Center. (Please follow the link and see what great work they are doing). Chris was due to visit Nepal in the Autumn, and kindly offered to bring me back some seed, including some of the rice grown high up in the Himalayas. That promise materialised this week with a small package sent in the post, containing rice, two different types of Millet, and an Amaranth. The rice is a variety called ‘Chomrong’, and comes from a permaculture project 2,200 meters high in the Himalayas. That astounded me. That’s almost a mile and a half up in the air. I did a quick internet search to look it up and found that it was one of two varieties noted for tolerating cooler temperatures at flowering. It was said to have experienced 30% sterility at temperatures of 15 Centigrade. Now I’m always pretty optimistic, so I don’t see a 30% loss at 15 C, I see a 70% harvest, which is fine. What is also positive is that if we regularly get these lower temperatures, and still get some seed to use, and sow again, the seed will hopefully select for the ability to flower in these temperatures, potentially developing a higher percentage of cold tolerant plants (flowering).
One of the points made in The Resilient Farm and Homestead is that the rice was not eaten by birds initially, but after a few years they learnt that it was a food source. I had already considered using nets, on a temporary frame to protect the seed, and the same frame might be useable to cover the plants with clear plastic at flowering, should lower temperatures be forecast. It would not anything too subsatntial, and the plastic is relatively cheap. Initially I’m going to try without it, and only do so if I cannot obtain a yield.
There may be some really good reasons why we are not already growing rice in the UK, but I won’t really be happy unless I give it a try. Luckily, thanks to Chris, I have enough seed to give it a good try for a few years. Watch this space for the results.