Plantation workers carrying rice in South Carolina, U.S.A. Published: c1895.

The Story of Rice Farming in the United States (Part 1 of 2)

Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for people, especially in Asia. As an agricultural commodity, it has the third-highest worldwide production after sugarcane and corn. Rice is an important part of the Japanese diet. The Japanese word gohan means cooked rice. Cooked white rice is low in fat, low in calories, high in protein, and an excellent source of folate and fiber.

Oryza rufipogon.

Chronicles of rice

Rice was first farmed in the Yangtze River Basin in China. A genetic study in 2011 shows that all forms of Asian rice, both indica and japonica, sprang from a single domestication event that arose 13,500 to 8,200 years ago in China from the wild rice Oryza rufipogon.

Oryza rufipogon. | Daderot

Rice was slowly introduced north to early Sino-Tibetan Yangshao (a Neolithic culture that existed extensively along the Yellow River in China) and Dawenkou culture (Neolithic communities who lived primarily in Shandong) millet farmers. By 4000 to 3800 BC, rice was a secondary crop.

Japonica rice cultivation into Southeast Asia began with the migrations of the Austronesian (a large group of people speaking the Austronesia language i.e. Malay Peninsula, Taiwan, Polynesia, Madagascar, etc.) Dapenkeng culture (Neolithic culture that appeared in northern Taiwan between 4000 and 3000 BCE) into Taiwan.

Planting rice in Japan over 100 years ago.

Rice in Japan

For quite some time, rice in Japan was reserved only for the warriors and Japanese nobility. It only became a popular food for the masses from the seventeenth century onwards and became the basis of Japanese food in the early twentieth century.

Planting rice in Japan over 100 years ago. | Tom Brandt

Though a fairly young food source, rice is considered to be a key food in Japanese civilization.

Japanese farmers cultivated rice as payment for warrior tax. During the Edo period (1603-1868), rice cultivation boomed and harvests became plentiful allowing peasants and common folk to add rice to their diet. The once scarce commodity became part of the Japanese culture. It is widely popular in Japanese religious rites.

Rice in the United States

Rice initially came to the Americas in South Carolina in 1694 from Madagascar. The pirate trader and slaver active in the area, John Thurber, is known to have introduced the crop after returning from a slave-trading voyage. He was said to have been blown off course and came to Charleston for repairs. While in Charleston, he gave a bag of seed rice to explorer Dr. Henry Woodward who planted the grain and experimented with it until it grew abundantly well in the wet Carolina soil.

Plantation workers carrying rice in South Carolina, U.S.A. Published: c1895.

Plantation workers carrying rice in South Carolina, U.S.A. Published: c1895.

Mastering rice farming was challenging for the English and other settlers who were still not familiar with the crop. Native Indians who were used to gathering wild rice were also inexperienced with rice cultivation. The first fifty years of settlement allowed them to learn more about rice and soon it became a dominant crop in South Carolina. Port of Charleston saw 40% of all American slave imports passed. Slave labor from Senegambia brought the highest prices due to their knowledge of rice cultivation. The slaves were put to use in many rice plantations around Georgetown, Charleston, and Savannah. With the end of slave labor after the American Civil War, rice culture became less profitable. The predominant strain of rice in the Carolinas was from Africa and was known as ‘Carolina Gold’.

Rice has been grown in the southern part of the United States such as in southern Arkansas, Louisiana and east Texas since the mid-19th century. Many Cajun farmers grew rice in wet marshes and low-lying prairies where crayfish is also farmed. In recent years, rice production has increased in North America especially in the Mississippi embayment area.