Rice farming on a widespread commercial basis in Louisiana began in the late 19th Century and rice research soon followed.
Farmers came to Louisiana from the Midwest were attracted to the warm climate, cheap land and the realization that rice could be grown with the same equipment and agricultural practices used for other grains. Besides the ample supply of flat ground, Louisiana also had something else needed for growing rice: water.
But it became obvious that new rice varieties had to be developed for the Gulf Coast, and research stepped up to the task.
One of the first improved varieties was “Blue Rose” developed by Salmon ‘Sol’ Wright, a Crowley area rice grower and entrepreneur
“Blue Rose was a dramatically improved variety over the then current varieties such a Japan and the old Carolina Gold that had been used for almost 200 years,” said Dr. Steve Linscombe, director of the Rice Research Station.
In addition to the migration of farmers to Louisiana, many farmers already in Louisiana had turned to rice after sugar prices crashed in the 1800s. Louisiana rice production went from 1.5 million pounds in 1864 to more than 40 million pounds by 1877, according to the March 1932 issue of the “Rice Journal.”
By the late 1800s, developers were advertising land for sale in southwest Louisiana, boasting of the area’s abundant water and mild climate. Acadia Parish, where the Rice Experiment Station would be located, became the leader in the rice industry with some of the best yields, a whopping 15 to 25 barrels an acre.
The 1890 crop was a record breaker at 80 million pounds, making Louisiana the No. 1 rice producing state, surpassing the former leader, South Carolina.
In the early 1900s, more Louisiana farmers switched to rice, according to the 1910 Annual Report of the USDA Office of Experiment Stations. “The ravages of the boll weevil have made the growing of cotton less profitable than formerly and the farmers are turning to rice growing. This necessitates the installation of pumping plants, the building of levees, etc., and the cotton growers are usually entirely unfamiliar with such things.”
The 1910 report detailed the origins of the new station: “A substation for rice culture was established at Crowley and work was begun during the spring of 1909. The station is conducted in cooperation with this department. Local parties gave 60 acres of land for the use of the station and subscribed $3,500 for buildings. The legislature authorized its establishment by an act passed July 1, 1908, but no appropriation for the purpose was made at the time. F.C. Quereau was called from the University of Tennessee to the position of assistant director in charge of this station.”
The 1911 report indicates the legislature appropriated $15,000 for maintenance during the next 2 years. A 60-horsepower gasoline engine to pump water was installed for $2,500 in 1910. Research included testing of 300 rice varieties, and studies of insects, irrigation and evaporation.
The grandfather of Calcasieu Parish farmer John Denison was among the Midwest farmers who came to Southwest Louisiana.. making the move in 1890. “He was one of the original settlers,” said Denison who still lives on the original 160-acre homestead his grandfather settled.
Land developers, such as J.B. Watkins of Lake Charles, came to Louisiana to buy large expanses of land to be sold to farmers. Once agriculture became established, railways were built. Denison said that Watkins helped bring Seaman Knapp to Louisiana to LSU. In his memory, Knapp Hall on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge is named after him. “He was truly a pioneer in the rice industry in Southwest Louisiana,” Denison said.
In 1949, the station bought 720 acres of land northeast of Crowley, the site of the current station. One of the important functions at the new location was to establish the Rice Research Station’s Foundation Seed Program to ensure a pure source of seed for rice farmers. Since then, the program has sold almost 200,000 pounds of seed.
In 1963, the station expanded by 320 acres with the South Farm, located 2 miles south of Crowley.
Crawfish research began at the station in the 1970s, and it now has the largest facility of its kind in the world.
Eventually, the USDA phased out its role at the station, now run entirely by the LSU AgCenter.
Dr. Rouse Caffey, former LSU AgCenter chancellor worked at the research facility from 1962 until 1970. The station has been renamed in honor of his legacy to the Louisiana rice industry.