Representatives from Ontario FangZheng Agriculture Enterprises Inc. think Ontario could become a major exporter of white rice.
The Thornhill-based company, in combination with researchers from the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus, is managing a one-hectare (2.47 acre) rice paddy near Chatham. At a news conference on June 28, company representatives said their goal is to show how farmers in Ontario’s southwest could profitably grow and export white rice.
Why it matters: Rice could provide Ontario growers with another diversification option, if the right varieties are found, and regulatory restrictions are reduced.
Rice can be grown in both paddy (lowland) and field (upland, or dryland) production systems. Examples of both systems can be found throughout parts of the United States, where white rice is a major crop.
No such production exists in Canada, other than the FangZheng plot.
Wendy Zhang, project and farm manager for the company’s rice farm, says the experimental rice paddy is the latest stage in a now three-year process — the current paddy being established after success in greenhouse cultivation at Ridgetown College in 2018.
The paddy was planted with greenhouse-grown transplants. Zhang says production methods, such as fungicide and fertilizer application rates, are based on Chinese rice-production recommendations, though modifications accounting for uniquely southwestern Ontario growing-conditions were made by University of Guelph research partners. Plant growth and development, pest pressure and potential controls, yield, and many other factors will be measured throughout the growing season.
The flat landscape, clay-loam soil, and proximity to fresh water of Chatham-Kent, Zhang says, made the county an ideal location for the experimental rice paddy.
“We received permission to take water from Environment Canada,” says Zhang. “Early in the season we add about five centimetres of water per day.”
Cold tolerance key
Both paddy and field production of white rice, is not completely new to the province or other parts of the country. Evan Elford, new crop development specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, says three previous studies of the crop have been conducted: one in Dunnville in 1967, a second at Ridgetown College in 1974, and another at the Harrow Research Station in 1998.
“Past studies have suggested commercial rice production in Ontario may be limited to areas with more than 3,150 heat units,” Elford says. “Results from these studies suggested that, at the time, the cost of production, yields and the lack of registered pest control products may be barriers to growing the crop in the province on a commercial scale.”
John Zandstra, fruit and vegetable cropping systems researcher at Ridgetown, is the acting University of Guelph research partner working with FangZheng Enterprises. He says the variety of rice being trialed is the same as a more cold-tolerant one currently grown in a part of northern China where climate conditions mirror that of southwestern Ontario. Starting with transplants as opposed to seeds should also help the crop succeed.
“You never dismiss an idea until you take a good look at it…. You never know until it’s in the bin,” he says.
Harvest will start in mid-October, says Zhang, and she anticipates yields of three tonnes per acre.
As for price, she says “that really depends on the market.” California rice growers commonly see returns of $1.75 per hundredweight, although she says a higher price is likely for the type of rice being grown in the test paddy.
Seed importation barriers
According to Elford and Zandstra, another barrier to rice production in Canada relates to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which does not permit the importation of rice seed for field production (except for some permissions granted for research). Part of the reason for this, says Zandstra, is a fear that white rice could become invasive or act as a vector for pathogens.
Zandstra supports the agency’s thorough approval system, although he says it took a significant amount of time for him and his project colleagues to navigate the regulations and acquire an approval permit.
Elford reiterates CFIA’s regulations, as well as conventionally believed production limitations, relates specifically to white rice, not wild rice, the latter being a completely different species.
More interest in Ontario
Elford also says there is definitely some interest in growing white rice in Ontario. For his part, he receives “quite a few” enquiries about it each year. Some of those inquiries are interested in researching new cold tolerant rice cultivars under Ontario growing conditions for both paddy and dry field production.
Others, he says, are interested in supplying seed or general production for local markets, as is the case in British Columbia, where limited production of field rice is used to make sake (rice-based alcohol) products.
Zhang, her colleagues, and many public servants at the news conference all expressed a belief that Ontario rice could become a profitable export crop.
“The rice in America started with one acre,” says Zhang. “[Now] it’s registered as their fourth biggest crop.”