The U.S. rice industry is making way for Jazzman.
It's a new variety of aromatic rice developed at Louisiana State University and being sold under several folksy-sounding labels — and it could become a viable competitor to the Thai jasmine rice that accounts for $350 million in U.S. business each year.
Production at Jazzmen Rice LLC is expected to increase from 500 tons this year to 63,000 tons by 2011, said Andrew Wong, one of the New Orleans company's partners.
That would equal 18 percent of U.S. imports from Thailand last year.
The number of farmers under contract is expected to grow tenfold, to 100, by next year, Wong said.
An obvious motivating factor is price. Louisiana's rice industry has struggled to regain a footing after devastating hurricane seasons in 2005 and 2008. Traditional rice is more expensive to produce and while the price farmers are paid for it has strengthened — particularly over the last year — the more exotic jasmine strain can fetch a premium.
The new variety yields up to three times as much grain per acre as the fragrant, nutty Thai strain, which grows too tall and flowers too late for U.S. farms.
There's good news for consumers, too: Because it is grown domestically, Jazzman rice is expected to cost less than imported varieties at the grocery.
Chef Susan Spicer said she has tried the rice produced by Jazzmen and that it compares "really favorably with the Asian varieties ... in terms of freshness, cooking, fragrance." She said she plans to buy more to use in her New Orleans restaurant, Bayona.
Concerned about the growing competition, the Thai government has claimed the rice developed by Louisiana State University was genetically engineered — a charge that Steven Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter's rice research station, refutes. Jazzman was developed after 12 years of crossbreeding strains from China and Arkansas, Linscombe said.
The Thai government also trumpeted that tests this fall found the LSU rice less fragrant than its Thai counterpart — fragrance being one of three important qualities in jasmine rice. The USA Rice Federation made the same observation in an informal taste test at a Hong Kong trade show in May, and Louisiana State University is working toward a more fragrant second generation.
William Farmer, the federation's director for promotions in Canada and Asia, said testers nevertheless gave the rice positive reviews for taste and the way it feels in the mouth.
Louisiana grows about 14 percent of the nation's rice — the third-biggest crop behind Arkansas, where about half the nation's rice is grown, and California, which grows 20 percent.
During the last decade, rice imports have increased while U.S.-grown rice sales have remained essentially flat, said Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission. He said "every U.S. rice farmer" is interested in varieties that would replace such imported aromatic rices as jasmine and basmati, from India.
USDA figures show that last year's U.S. production of 10.1 million tons was less than 8 percent above the figure a decade earlier. But imports more than doubled in the nine years ending 2007-08, to more than 724,000 tons, and imports from Thailand nearly doubled, to more than 500,000 tons.
A second new strain, JES, for Jasmine Early Short, was made available earlier this year for seed growers after 10 years of development by Christopher Deren of the University of Arkansas.
"Clearly those rices are having an impact on our sales," Johnson said of the imports. "And they just taste great."