Special to The Rice World, November 1997
by Tom Hargrove
Retail buyers of jasmine rice are mostly ethnic Asians who want rice that is soft and smells good when you cook it.
JASMINE 85–ALMOST NAMED “IMELDA”– HELPS U.S. COMPETE WITH THAI IMPORTS
Thai jasmine rices have captured much of the ethnic-Asian market in the United States. In order to compete, a few American farmers have taken to growing Jasmine 85–a variety that inherited popular jasmine traits from a Thai jasmine parent.
Jasmine 85 is a domestic U.S. variety with a rich history. Few know that she was bred 30 years ago in the Philippines and, before immigrating to the United States, was almost named Imelda to honor Imelda Romualdez Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines.
To me, Jasmine 85 is an old friend. But I first knew her back in Asia, by yet another name: 1R841. First, let’s talk about Thai jasmine rice.
The Thai jasmines
Go to any Asian market or grocery and you’ll see Thai jasmine–but not in familiar cellophane packets of 1 to 5 pounds. Most jasmine customers are ethnic Asians who consume about 150 pounds of rice yearly. They buy jasmine in 25- and 50-pound sacks. Jasmine consumers like its aroma, and its long, extremely white grains that cook soft and sticky.
Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, sells 4 to 5 million metric tons abroad yearly. The United States imported 229,000 tons of Thai rice last year; including almost 169,000 tons of jasmine. That’s 5% of total U.S. rice consumption, according to Andy Aaronson, chairman of the USDA Inter-Agency Commodity Committee for Rice.
The price of jasmine is rising. In June, 1997, Thai jasmine retailed for $0.40 per pound in Asian markets. But in October, 50-pound sacks of Thai jasmine sold for $0.50 per pound vs. $0.28 per pound for U.S. long grain at the Kim Hung Supermarket, Houston.
The higher prices are partly because “exports to China are increasing, especially to urban areas along the eastern coast where profitable new industries are located,” Aaronson says. Also, last year’s jasmine crop was lower than usual. (Drought caused by the El Nino weather pattern is dramatically cutting Thailand’s second, dry-season crop. Although that crop includes little jasmine, Thailand’s overall rice shortage is helping drive up its price.)
Mike Doguet, a rice farmer near Beaumont, Texas, recalls when he first saw jasmine.
“In 1992, I visited Asian markets in Houston and saw a truckload of Thai jasmine rice on the floor of each store, “Doguet recalls. “That’s when I started growing Jasmine 85.” The Doguet Rice Milling Company markets the variety as “Jasmine Fragrant.”
L.G. and Linda Raun started growing Jasmine 85 as an organic rice on their Lowell Farms near El Campo, Texas, in 1989.
“The aromatics were becoming popular, and we were looking for a way to diversify,” Linda Raun recalls. “Jasmine 85 was a good choice.” The Rauns market both white and brown Jasmine 85 as “Lowell Farms Organic Jasmine Rice.”
Jasmine 85 almost named “Imelda”
Jasmine 85 is the only U.S. farm variety bred at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, where I was agricultural science editor from 1973 to 1991. Scientists selected it as IR841, from the 841st IRRI cross, made in 1966 by Dr. Ben Jackson, Rockefeller Foundation rice breeder and IRRT liaison in Thailand from 1966 to 19831. One of its parents was Khao Dawk Mall 105, Thailand’s most popular jasmine variety.
We regularly served the sticky, fragrant IR841 to guests in IRRl’s Executive Dining Room, and at official IRRI functions. Filipinos loved IR841–so much that government officials suggested its release to Filipino farmers under the name Imelda, for the wife of President Ferdinand E. Marcos.
“I knew that IR841 was susceptible to several diseases and insects of the Philippines, and discouraged the idea,” recalls Dr. Nyle C. Brady, then IRRI Director General. “I pointed out that if’ ‘Imelda’ were released to farmers, and failed, it would bring a bad image to both Mrs. Marcos and IRRI.”
Pests are different in the United States. In 1989, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station released IR84I as Jasmine 85, in cooperation with the University of Arkansas, Louisiana and Missisippi State Universities, and IKRI. The idea was to compete with growing Thai imports: from virtually zero in the early 1980s, to 96,000 tons in 1988, then 120,000 tons in 1989.
Although susceptibililty to local pests prevented the release of “Imelda” in the Philippines, resistance to pests of the U.S. Southern Rice Belt is helping make Jasmine 85 a “niche rice” in her new home.
“Some farmers grow Jasmine 85 as an organic rice because it’s resistant to rice blast, the main disease, plus narrow brown leaf spot, and sheath blight diseases,” says Dr. Anna McClung, Research Geneticist, USDA Agricultural Research Service. McClung and colleagues at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Beaumont—like breeders in all the rice-growing states—are working to develop other aromatic, jasmine-type varieties for U.S. farmers.
Doguet Rice Milling Co. contracted 1,200 acres of organic rice in 1997; 450 acres were Jasmine 85. Doguet may contract 50% more organic rice in 1998.
“To carry the ‘organic’ label, rice must be grown on land where no chemical fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide has been applied for 3 years,” Doguet says. Texas state officials analyze soil samples, then grain samples at harvest.
Jasmine 85 is “an aggressive variety” that grows quickly and thickly, suppressing some weeds and grasses, Linda Raun says. But with no fertilization, yields of Jasmine 85—as an organic—are only about half those of rices grown conventionally.
Like the U.S. organic growers, Thai farmers don’t fertilize their jasmine–but for different reasons. “Most is grown as rainfed rice” Dr. Ben Jackson says. “If a farmer fertilizes, and the rains aren’t good, the fertilizer is lost.” Most jasmine is grown on sandy soils at 2,000 to 3,000 feet elevation in Northeast Thailand. Yields are less than 2,000 pounds per acre, among the lowest in Asia.
Thailand’s Ministry of Agriculture is releasing two aromatic semidwarf rice varieties–jasmine progeny–for cultivation in the more productive, irrigated Central Plain in 1997, according to Thai scientists.
Seed dormancy a problem
Seeds of Jasmine 85 can lie in the field, dormant, for several seasons. “That can cause problems for farmers who plant Jasmine 85, then decide to grow another variety next year,” says Dr. Arlen Klosterboer, TAMU rice extension agronomist. “Plants of Jasmine 85 may appear as ‘volunteer’ rice, mixed in the next crop.”
The jasmine market
“Most of our organic Jasmine 85 goes to upscale customers looking for new, healthy products,” Linda Raun says. “Many don’t normally eat much rice, but are attracted to the aromatics.”
RiceTec, Inc. of Alvin, Texas–which developed and markets “Texmati”–has sold “Jasmati,” a jasmine-type aromatic rice, across the United States since the early 1990s. Sales are good–but not to the ethnic-Asian market.
“We don’t really compete with the Thai jasmines,” says Mark Denman, RiceTec Vice President for Sales. “We don’t sell in bulk. Ours are ‘specialty packaging’ rices, sold mostly in supermarkets.
“But it’s frustrating that we can’t break the Thai jasmine barrier in ethnic channels,” Denman admits.
In 1991, Texas A&M University studied the potential of domestic rice varieties to compete with Thai jasmine for the Asian American market. Six ethnic groups in Houston and College Station were studied: Filipinos, mainland and Taiwanese Chinese, Thais, Cambodians, and Vietnamese. Japanese and Koreans were not included because they prefer japonica rices.
Preferences were compared, through interviews and taste tests, for two domestic aromatic rices (Jasmine 85 and Cal A301), two nonaromatic domestics (Lemont and Toro II), and Thai jasmine.
“The subjects clearly preferred the Thai jasmines,” says Dr. Ed Rister, TAMU agricultural economist. “Part of the discrimination against domestic rices was based on their color and shape. Cultural factors also played a role–some wanted to eat rice from the home land.”
“But jasmine is a good product, clearly what the Asian market desires,” the economist says. “Thais are as discriminating about the taste of rice as Texans are about beef steak.”
TAMU is also studying whether the desirability of local aromatic rices can be improved by altering cultural practices or methods of harvesting, drying, milling or storage, or soils and climates where rice is grown.
The average Thai eats about 290 pounds of rice per year. Rice and food are almost synonymous in Thailand. In fact, the Thai word khao means both “rice” and “food.”
It’s the same with Korean. The word bap means both “rice” and “food.”
Tom Hargrove, Ph.D. was Communication Head at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) near Cali, Colombia, from 1992 to 1996. He was editor, then Communication Head at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines from 1973 through 1991. Hargrove received his BS–a double degree in agricultural science and journalism–from Texas A&M University in 1966, his MS from Iowa State University in 1968, and an Iowa State Ph.D. in 1977. He has authored hundreds of articles and scripts, more than 30 refereed scientific papers, and three mass-market books.