It’s hard to imagine a more global cuisine staple than rice, a sustaining food for nearly 2/3 of the world’s population. Rice cultivation originated in China more than 5,000 years ago. From Asia rice spread to ancient Greece and on to the Nile Delta, eventually reaching the New World in the 17th century.
Early American colonists began cultivating rice quite by accident. In 1685, a storm-battered ship from Madagascar reached Charles Towne Harbor in South Carolina. As a gift for repairing the ship, the ship’s captain gave local planters a small quantity of “Golden Seede Rice.” Freshwater marshes of the Carolinas and Georgia proved ideal growing environments for rice production—in fact, the rich, wet floodplains could grow little else. By 1700, rice had become a major crop for colonists. Bills of sale from that year record that 300 tons of “Carolina Golde Rice” was shipped to England.
The substantial hand-labor requirements of growing rice led to the Southern states’ plantation era. Farming equipment of the time was ill-suited to the demands of soggy soil preparation, planting, harvesting and threshing of the grain. Even small tracts of rice production required hundreds of manual laborers.
By 1726, the Port of Charleston was exporting nearly 4,500 metric tons of “Carolina Golde,” which had become the world standard of rice quality. By the time of the American Revolution, rice had become one of the nation’s major business enterprises.
Upheavals of the Civil War, combined with the ravages of hurricanes and competition from other crops, pushed rice agriculture westward. It was during this time that rice became a major crop in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Not until mechanized farming methods became practical in the 1880s would Southern rice crops become viable again.
The California Gold Rush of 1849 spawned a rice boom in the far west. A steady influx of Chinese immigrants created demand that prompted growers in the Sacramento Valley to plant and harvest the grain. By 1920, California had become a major rice-growing state.
From its humble beginnings in South Carolina, rice continues to be an important U.S. agricultural product and export. The high quality of U.S.-grown rice is respected the world over. So are our innovative growing and production methods. New techniques have reduced the time spent in fields to just seven man-hours per acre while some Asian growers still require 300!
Today, nearly 85% of the rice consumed in America is grown in the U.S. And world-class technological efficiencies also have enabled the U.S. to become one of the largest rice exporters in the world.
Farming and Cultivation
The world market has come to expect a dependable supply of the highest-quality rice from U.S. rice farmers. Through the efforts of American growers, rice farming has become a precise science involving specialized technology utilizing lasers and computers, as well as unique planting and harvesting equipment and methods.
Successful rice farming no longer depends on heavy seasonal rainfall. Today, machinery creates ideal fields that enable uniform flooding and controlled draining. Laser guides help position water control levees for optimal results—an even covering of two to three inches during growing season. Fertilizers are broadcast by airplanes, to ensure healthy, consistent yields.
U.S. rice growers put soils that would be unsuitable for most agriculture to good use. Heavy clay soils that are ill-suited to most crops retain water very well, making them perfect for rice. Flooded fields do an excellent job of preventing erosion and the loss of dry topsoil from winds. New irrigation techniques in use significantly reduce water requirements. When rice is mature, water is drained from the fields; sophisticated combines cut the rice and separate the grain from the stalks. Drying facilities utilize forced warm air to gradually reduce the moisture content to a level best suited to storage before the rice moves to the milling process.
The Milling Process
The final step in growing rice is milling, a mechanized process that American mills have perfected.
At the mill, the harvested “rough” rice passes through sheller machines to remove the inedible hulls. This process yields brown rice with the bran layers surrounding the kernel still intact. Brown rice can be used as is or further milled by machines that rub the grains together under pressure. This abrasion removes the bran layer to produce white or “polished” whole kernels of rice. Finally, the white rice is enriched with a thin coating of vitamins to replace some of the nutrients lost during milling.
Some American mills produce parboiled rice, favored by those who desire extra-separate, firmer grains after cooking. Parboiling involves a steam-pressure process where the rough rice is soaked, steamed and dried before milling.
Technology has enabled the U.S. rice industry to consistently produce rice of unsurpassed quality. For example, many U.S. rice mills use laser sorters that look for broken, discolored or immature kernels and remove them from the whole kernels of rice during processing. This ensures consistency in appearance and size.
Modern technology and expertise have helped to shape U.S.-grown rice’s reputation for high quality not just in America, but around the world. Nearly 85% of the rice consumed in the United States is produced within its borders. And the fact that the United States is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice attests to the grain’s broad appeal.
When it comes from the growing field, each grain of rice is enclosed in a tough hull, or husk, which must be removed. Underneath is the nutritious whole grain, which may be brown, reddish or even black, depending on the color of the bran layers. All rice may be eaten at this stage, but most is processed further. Under the hull are the bran and germ which are high in vitamins, minerals, oil and various phytonutrients proposed to have health benefits. Rice at this stage is 100% whole grain.
Remove the bran and germ and what remains is the endosperm, the white rice enjoyed throughout the world. To replace some of the nutrients lost in milling, most American processors apply a thin coat of thiamine, niacin, iron and folic acid to milled rice to produce what is known as enriched rice.
Whole grain rice (sometimes called brown rice): longer cooking time; more fiber; high in vitamins, minerals, oil and various phytonutrients; shorter shelf life which can be extended using cool storage temperatures.
Milled rice (white rice): shorter cooking time; enriched to restore nutrient value; longer shelf life.