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Rice is a staple for more than half of the world's population. In the U.S., Arkansas grows the most rice, and California is second in producing the water-intensive crop. With drought conditions in California and the uncertain impacts of climate change, one scientist is experimenting with growing rice in the Midwest. Susan Bence of member station WUWM in Milwaukee has been watching this experiment since the spring.
SUSAN BENCE, BYLINE: Four years ago, Michael Schlappi began stress-testing rice using special climate-controlled growth chambers here in his Marquette University lab.
MICHAEL SCHLAPPI: The main thing is that I'm testing whether they actually flower here, set seeds and the seeds can be harvested in time before winter, you know, before it gets too cold, and then also to measure what the actual yield is.
BENCE: He's slogged through more than 200 varieties of rice before hitting on the most promising few.
SCHLAPPI: This is the roof.
BENCE: He subjected those to real Wisconsin weather on the rooftop paddies he constructed outside his lab. Planting this year started in April.
SCHLAPPI: It's a little warmer - a lot warmer than last year, but they survived. They all survived. They flowered when they were supposed to flower, so they can do it. This line, which is a Russian line, is the one that I think we can grow here in Wisconsin.
BENCE: It's called Krasnodarsky 3352. One month later, Schlappi expanded his experiment by digging up patties on a third of an acre on a farm 30 miles north of campus. Schlappi plunks his germinated seedlings into their watery new home. Their bright green shoots gently sway in the breeze. He wove experimentation into his design. Schlappi planted both seeds and seedlings and tested flooded and unflooded paddy systems.
Stephen Petro manages this 40-acre farm, a smidgen of which Schlappi occupies. Small-scale urban farmers cultivate the rest, growing vegetables and flowers to sell at market in Milwaukee. Many of those renting land emigrated from Laos, where growing rice is a way of life. Petro says they're watching Michael Schlappi's experiment with keen interest.
STEPHEN PETRO: A big thing for a lot of our farmers is - there is a cultural component of bringing something that they grew up doing and that they haven't done, you know, some of our growers, maybe, for 30 years - back into their lives.
BENCE: The bulk of summer passes, and September arrives at the farm. Dragonflies light on fully grown patties. Michael Schlappi says despite an occasional leak and some weed encroachment, plants flowered, and rice is forming. He hasn't harvested the crop yet, but Schlappi is already plotting to expand his experiment to a full acre.
SCHLAPPI: I should get about 8,000 pounds of rice on an acre, and this Krasnodarsky variety can do that. It's almost, like, made for Wisconsin.
BENCE: Susan McCouch sees promise in Michael Schlappi's lab-to-field experiment. She's professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University. I reached her in India where she's working to come up with efficient breeding of key crops, including rice.
SUSAN MCCOUCH: This is what I do for a living - is to try to understand what kind of genetic attributes the different varieties that are needed for the future might have. Since the climate is becoming less predictable, it's hard to know what the farmers of the future will need in terms of the traits that will enable the crops to be productive and to provide a really healthy food base for this enormous global population.
BENCE: McCouch says scientists like Schlappi with his farmers in Wisconsin could play a crucial role in helping to provide food for that population. From NPR News, I'm Susan Bence in Milwaukee.