Rice Rice Baby

A professor’s unlikely experiment is changing Wisconsin agribusiness

By Joe DiGiovanni, JOUR 87

Dr. Michael Schläppi, professor of biological sciences, started harvesting his second one-acre crop of rice from a farm in Mequon in late September, projecting to triple or even quadruple the yield from a year ago.

Schläppi researches the genetics of cold tolerance, and received funds from Marquette’s Strategic Innovation Fund in 2016 to study hundreds of varieties of rice — a cold-sensitive crop — to determine whether any would grow in an intemperate climate.

Initially, he constructed “rice paddies” on the roof of the Wehr Life Sciences Building while also testing rice on small plots in Milwaukee and its suburbs. Last year, he expanded dramatically to a one-acre plot at the Mequon Nature Preserve, and harvested 1,000 pounds of rice using a strain of rice currently cultivated in southern Russia.

Due to earlier planting and improved treatment of young seedlings, this year’s crop might yield 3,000 to 4,000 pounds.

Four generations of local Hmong farmers work in the paddies, helping to reap only the second commercial rice harvest in Wisconsin history.

Remembering Marquette’s commitment to social responsibility through community engagement, Schläppi for years has involved members of the Hmong community to help with the growing and harvest. He has included members of the community for several years, often octogenarians who have fond memories of harvesting rice decades earlier in Asia.

Schläppi continues to expand his research, growing two additional varieties as a trial on a small section this year. One produced a nice yield and he found the other was not as suitable.

A Hmong farmer also tried her own variety but it did not flower until after the Fall equinox, likely due to “short day photoperiod requirements,” Schläppi said.

Marquette University

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