It is not uncommon for Maryland farmer Heinz Thomet to go against the grain and grow different and exciting produce for market. However, ever since he literally started growing organic grains for sale a few years ago, I have been curious. I became even more curious when he started growing and selling rice. In Maryland? And without paddies?

Research plot. Dryland rice growing in an organic system at Next Step farm in southern Maryland.

Carolina Gold rice growing in an organic system at Next Step farm in Southern Maryland (Oct. ’15).

What started as research has turned out to be an auspicious, marketable crop.

Farmers in the region are still in the infant stages of understanding dryland rice production using natural systems, but thanks to a few key people, progress has been made. And they’re willing to share their knowledge with you.

Heinz Thomet, of Next Step Produce, is leading the way. In a 2013 WAPO article, Heinz mentions that he pioneered the risky endeavor simply because, well, he eats rice.

Heinz equipment for rice

Heinz speaks to a 15 young farmers who visit on a recent FH CASA tour.

But there’s more to it than that. Greg Bowen wrote about Heinz’s farm on this blog last year. On this recent trip, we were invited to learn about his effort to track and grow dryland rice varieties for the mid-Atlantic. The research is made possible in part through a SARE grant. On his team, and available for questions on the tour was farmhand Adam, and rice research partners, Amanda and Nazirahk. Nazirahk has been researching dryland rice with Heinz and through a local university.

The rice is grown without the use of a traditional flooding, in our climate, and in a biologically active organic system. Heinz walked the group through each step, from germination house to field, harvest equipment, all the way through to cleaning and storage. “Treat it like you would a vegetable,” Heinz shares to the young group of produce farmers. Rice is started from seed in the greenhouse, transplanted onto bare ground (or mounded black plastic) with drip tape and compost in spring, and harvested in late summer. Similar to many of the other crops he grows on the 86 acre farm.

Packaged rice. Click the picture for recipe.

Packaged rice. Click the picture for recipe.

Heinz mentions that rice, similar to other grains, should be kept in the hull until ready to bag and sell. “Hull it only as you need it,” he warns, because once hulled it’s stored in a walk in cooler below 55 degrees to retain its nutrients (it can remain at this state for months). There are other ways of storing rice, but this is the best method for his small scale operation. The equipment needed to plant, harvest, hull and store the rice is expensive for a farmer just starting out. Heinz offered the farmers on the tour to talk with him if they would like to consider working out a deal for processing their own rice after it’s grown.

Of course what is a well-grown crop without flavor and marketability? The rice, like a good wine, is rich with depiction. Heinz describes one Japanese short-grain brown rice variety called Kushihikari as a fresh, aromatic flavor that can’t be beat! And after several meals in my rice cooker, I agree the flavor is fantastic.

Based on yields, pest management, and flavor trials, Heinz and team have discovered a few varietiesheinz worthwhile to grow.  Out of last years research, the Koshihikari mentioned above and Hmong Sticky, a short grain Vietnamese variety, have responded well to the growing conditions and climate on the farm. Some Chinese varieties and one U.S. variety called Blue Bonnet have done well in the field this year, but the verdict is still out as to whether they hold up in hulling process and taste test trail.

Learn more about the objectives and methods of the research here. More in-depth analysis will be published at the end of the grant. Look out for another post about the final report and what’s in the works for rice, this winter.

Blog Update: Here is the link to the published final report for mid-Atlantic dryland rice trials.