Rice, beer and conservation
When German brewers such as Adolphus Busch immigrated to the United States they faced a unique problem. Many of the hearty, protein-filled barleys grown in their new country were difficult to brew. They began using rice and corn to “dilute” the malt to improve taste.
The result were lager beers that differed from those they produced in their native Germany, but the lagers became popular in the U.S., according to Craft Beer and Brewing. When Busch returned to St. Louis following the Civil War, he went to work for his father in-law, Eberhard Anheuser, who owned a small brewery.
The largest beer producer in the world was born.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and Anheuser-Busch are partnering to research and promote resource conservation for rice farming in Arkansas and the surrounding region. Their focus will be on preserving water quality and quantity and nutrient management.
The corporate “Smart Agriculture” goals were stated in Anheuser-Busch’s 2025 sustainability plan, written in 2018, said Bill Jones, rice agronomy manager for Anheuser-Busch. Jones, who works from the company’s Jonesboro facility, said the beer brewer has been advancing methods to reduce water use in its beer making for years.
With their Smart Agriculture goals, the company wants to extend those practices to the growers from which they buy rice, mostly in Arkansas.
Rice is a key ingredient in the brewing process. Anheuser-Busch purchased 18.3 million bushels of rice directly from farmers in 2021.
“This is 99% Arkansas rice,” Jones said.
Anheuser-Busch is the leading consumer of rice in the country. It buys about $120 million worth of rice each year, and most of the rice used by the company is grown within an hour’s drive of Jonesboro. At its local mill located near the city’s limits, about 2.6 million pounds of rice is milled each day.
“Our efforts are 100% directed toward developing skills and financial empowerment for our growers,” Jones said. “The long-term success of farms, including those in Arkansas, are vital for Anheuser-Busch’s ability to brew its beers with high-quality ingredients.”
Anheuser-Busch is the largest beer company in the world with $53 billion in annual sales. The worldwide beer market is estimated to be about $768 billion annually, according to Zippia. Americans consume more than 6 billion gallons of beer per year.
To convince growers that resource conservation practices are worth the effort, Jones reached out to Trent Roberts, associate professor of soil fertility and testing for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, and Mike Daniels, professor and crop, soil and environmental sciences associate department head for the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.
Daniels is the director of the division’s Arkansas Discovery Farms program. Discovery Farms are privately-owned Arkansas farms on which research and demonstration programs are conducted regarding the environmental impacts of agricultural production, Daniels said. Data collected on the farms contributes to experiment station research. Visitors can see first-hand how science-based information, technology and management performs on working farms.
Jones and Roberts had collaborated in the past on nutrient management issues. They had a connection through their common alma mater, Oklahoma State University. When Jones sought help in extending water conservation information to growers, Roberts put him in touch with Daniels. The Discovery Farms provided an ideal platform for demonstrating practical water conservation methods. When Anheuser-Busch added nutrient management to its resource conservation efforts, that led Jones back to Roberts.
“This program is funded by the Anheuser-Busch Foundation to advance innovative farming practices and drive sustainability,” Jones said. “The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture is the most respected Land Grant Institution in rice research, and we are excited about our continued partnership to help support rice producers in Arkansas and beyond.”
“Bill and Anheuser-Busch have been very supportive of N-STaR (Nitrogen Soil Test for Rice) and the Green Seeker tool for nutrient management,” Roberts said. “Forming a partnership with them and using Discovery Farms as a platform allows us to set up large-scale field projects.”
Roberts said the partners are conducting four research projects to cover crops in zero-grade rice fields, and cover crops in furrow-irrigated rice-soybean rotations. The partners are also conducting research in rice crops with enhanced fertilizer treatments and nutrient management research on a Discovery Farm adjacent to an Anheuser-Busch facility in Jonesboro. The test fields are contrasted with control plots that use traditional management practices.
“Being able to conduct this research in large-scale fields allows us to use all the tools at our disposal,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the research will help them better understand how water conservation measures affect nutrient management. For example, zero grade rice fields allow precise water management — the water doesn’t leave the field — and so nutrients, which could be carried about by water, stay on the field. But that complicates planting cover crops over winter because they don’t thrive in flooded fields.
“For our nutrient use at Discovery Farm near the Anheuser-Busch mill in Jonesboro, we will be doing field-scale comparisons of nutrient management,” Roberts said. “One field will implement fertilization and nutrient management in a ‘business-as-usual approach based on the producer and consultant guidance. The second field we call our ‘aspirational’ approach where we really push the envelope and implement practices and strategies that are new or emerging but could be game changers as it relates to rice fertilization and nutrient management.”
The research projects will help sort out the best management practices in these conditions, Roberts said. In addition to better understanding the resource conservation benefits of alternate management systems, Roberts said the team will learn how those practices affect yield and profitability for Arkansas rice farms. As research results come in and conservation practices are better understood, the Discovery Farms help distribute the information to growers, Daniels said.
“We want to show farmers how to do these things and encourage them to make changes voluntarily,” Daniels said. “Anheuser-Busch likes our Discovery Farm model as a means to demonstrate sustainability practices for farmers.”
Daniels said as research develops better conservation methods, Discovery farmers inform other farmers at field days through farmer-to-farmer education. He said the collaboration brings together key players — farmers, researchers and industry — to discover and implement resource conservation.
“This is the whole supply chain collaborating on finding solutions for agricultural sustainability,” he said.
Getting science-based information to growers is key to Anheuser-Busch’s sustainability goals, Jones said.
“Growers are trying things, too,” Jones said. “If they try something and it doesn’t work, they’re reluctant to try it again. Sometimes the risks are too high. So, we are sharing the risk with them to help farmers understand the value of these projects.”
Jones said the aim of the research partnership is to develop an agricultural protocol that limits or reduces impacts on rivers, lakes and other groundwater sources.
“We’ll have data to support what we’re doing, to protect our license to operate and that of our growers.”