UH Hilo agricultural students conduct trials on growing rice in East Hawai‘i

The lead investigators of the project, horticultural researchers Sharad Marahatta and Norman Arancon, say the findings could benefit local farmers and the entire agricultural community of Hawai‘i.

By Susan Enright

Class of students standing alongside greenhouse bench with pots of growing rice plants.
UH Hilo horticultural students with greenhouse-grown rice varieties Jefferson, Carolina Gold, Koshihikari and White Basmati. September 2019. Photo by Sharad Marahatta.
Student at greenhouse bench, tending to rice plants in pots.
A student in a greenhouse at the UH Hilo Farm tends to potted rice plants. Photo by S. Marahatta, click to enlarge.

Horticultural students at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are conducting important trials on the potential economic viability of growing exotic rice cultivars in East Hawai‘i. The project is funded by the County of Hawai‘i via the Big Island Resource Conservation and Development Council. The broad objective of the project is to evaluate the performance of selected exotic rice varieties cultivated in Hawai‘i. But an equally important part of the project is in using the trials as a way to educate undergraduate students on rice husbandry practice through experiential learning.

During the project, that will run through June 2020, students enrolled in agriculture and horticulture courses such as Principles of Horticulture (HORT 262) are being mentored in growing rice, and at the same time are being trained about the procedures of conducting experimental trials. The students are learning about rice seed sowing, seedling transplanting, how to develop experimental pot and plot settings, labeling, fertilizer applying, data recording, harvesting, and data analysis. At the end of growing out the rice, soil samples will be taken, and the soil nematodes will be extracted, identified and correlated with the rice yield. The students will then assess the potential economic viability of rice production in East Hawai‘i.

The principal investigator of the project, which is titled, “Evaluation of rice (Oryza sativa) varieties for an experiential education in Hilo, Hawai‘i,” is Sharad Marahatta, an assistant professor of horticulture; co-investigator is Norman Arancon, associate professor of horticulture. Both teach and conduct research at the UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management.

“This grant has encouraged us to continue rice research, involve undergraduate students in research and evaluate rice agronomic practices in Hawai‘i,” says Marahatta.

Norman Arancon and Sharad Marahatta
From left, Norman Arancon and Sharad Marahatta. The two UH Hilo horticulturalists are leading a grant project where students are conducting trials cultivating exotic rice cultivars in East Hawai‘i. The results may be of great benefit to farmers in Hawai‘i. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

The project involves the rice varieties Carolina Gold, Koshihikari, White Basmati, and Jefferson, which will be seeded separately in community pots in greenhouses. At one month, rice seedlings will be transplanted into pots and/or field plots. Each transplanted rice variety will be replicated at least four times and the transplanted pots and plots will be arranged in randomized complete blocks.

The trials are being conducted at the 110-acre UH Hilo Farm Laboratory located in Pana‘ewa, five miles south of Hilo. The farm is an experiential place of learning where students put classroom theory into practice with projects in hydroponics, floriculture, forestry, vegetable cultivation, sustainable agriculture, livestock production, equine science, beekeeping, tropical fruit, and aquaculture.

Last year, the college began to extend its classroom teaching about the dominant and staple crop of the tropics, rice (Oryza sativa L.), to include experiential learning at the farm.

“Rice research is a part of hands-on education in Principles of Horticulture HORT 262 course,” Marahatta says. “Here, at UH Hilo, HORT 262 students have been involved in rice research since fall 2018.”

Students in agricultural plots, tending rice plants.
Students tending plots of rice at the UH Hilo Farm Laboratory in Pana‘ewa, March 2019. Photo by Sharad Marahatta.

According to the grant description, rice production was established in Hawai‘i in the 1860s. Around the 1920s, rice was second in value and acreage only to sugar (Saccharum officinarum L.) in the Hawaiian islands. But currently, there is no rice being grown in Hawai‘i. This situation could be reversed if high value rice varieties such as Koshikihari and Carolina Gold are successfully tested in Hawai‘i.

The students will present their findings at the annual symposium hosted by the college. It is expected that 15 students will be directly involved in the project, and about 300 college and university community members will review the students’ work at the symposium. The principal investigators say the findings of this project could benefit the farmers and the entire agriculture community of Hawai‘i.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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