Golden grain

Could a rice-growing renaissance boost the Strand’s economy?

For Weekly SurgeSeptember 26, 2012 

  • The Rice Coast Reminders of our rich rice past are right around us – some right in our back yard. Take a day trip and immerse yourself in a culture and industry that put South Carolina on the map.   •  Rice Museum www.ricemuseum.org 633 Front Street, Georgetown 546-7423 Open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Adults $7, Seniors (60 and older) $5, Students (6-21) $3, Younger than 6 free with adult.   •  Brookgreen Gardens www.brookgreen.org 1932 Brookgreen Drive, Murrells Inlet 235-6000 Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults $14, Seniors (65 and older) $12; Children 4-12, $7. Admission to gardens valid for seven consecutive days.   •  Hobcaw Barony www.hobcawbarony.org 22 Hobcaw Road, Georgetown 546-4623 Tours offered 9:30 a.m. Tuesday – Friday. $20 per person – Reservations required. Educational programs offered year-round.   •  Mansfield Plantation www.mansfieldplantation.com 1776 Mansfield Road, Georgetown 717-1776 Plantation tour for groups of 15 or more, $12.50 per person (minimum $187.50 plus tax). Plantation Tour & Afternoon Tea for groups of 15 or more, $17.50 per person (minimum $262.50 plus tax). For more info, hit up www.south-carolina-plantations.com - Roger Yale, for Weekly Surge

Let’s imagine for a moment that Bubba in “Forrest Gump” decided to go into the rice business. When laying out the versatility of this esteemed grain, his spiel to Gump might sound something like this: “Anyway, like I was sayin’, rice is the fruit of the field. You can steam it, boil it, fry it - and sauté it. There’s rice pilaf, instant rice, Rice Perlo, rice in Hoppin’ John, rice in Chicken Bog – Rice-A-Roni, rice pudding, Rice Crispies. White rice, brown rice, yellow rice – rice balls, rice cakes…”

You get the picture. Rice, although recently under scrutiny by the FDA for trace amounts of naturally-occurring arsenic, is so important to the U.S. economy that the federal government proclaimed September as National Rice Month in 1991, with both houses of Congress and then-President, George H.W. Bush, embracing the initiative.

At the bottom of a recent press release endorsing the House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill Proposal, the USA Rice Federation stated: “The USA Rice Federation represents producers, millers, merchants, exporters, end users and input suppliers doing business in 21 states, with rice produced in 10 of those states, including Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas.”

Hold the phone. Where is South Carolina on that list? Wasn’t rice the grain that enriched the Coastal Carolina region, infusing this area with prosperity and creating an upper crust of wealthy rice framers and producers? A glimpse into any history of the Palmetto State will tell you that much. Family names such as Allston, Williams and Middleton echo up through history and are forever associated with bringing rice to the forefront here.

It appears that South Carolina rice production these days is but a blip on the radar. Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd of the USA Rice Federation told Weekly Surge that South Carolina produces less than one percent of the nation’s rice. “Ironically, it was South Carolina that first began growing rice in the US,” she said.

But lest we forget – this prosperity came on the backs of slave labor.

In our region alone, reminders of this period are everywhere - from Brookgreen Gardens in our own back yard to Mansfield Plantation in Georgetown, a well-preserved antebellum rice plantation and now a bed and breakfast. To the north, efforts are being made to restore Orton Plantation in Brunswick County, N.C. You can see a working rice field at Middleton Place in Charleston, where rice is also pounded daily.

The Rice Museum in Georgetown [www.ricemuseum.org] is a testimony to this rich, albeit awkward history. A quick look at the museum’s Web site tells us, “the Rice Museum, known locally as The Town Clock, is located in the Old Market Building and is a prominent symbol of Georgetown County. Through dioramas, maps, artifacts and other exhibits, visitors to the Museum are enlightened to the history of a society dependent on the rice crop.”

It was a variety of rice called Carolina Gold that became South Carolina’s cash cow all those years ago. And through the efforts of a Charleston-based group called the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation [www.carolinagoldricefoundation.org] – that and other rice strains are once again beginning to flourish in South Carolina.

With the renaissance of South Carolina rice – what is stopping rice production from becoming a vibrant industry on the Grand Strand once more? Can it serve to diversify a local economy that is predominantly dependent on the tourism dollar?

Depends on who you ask.

“It encircles with great intensity and great economic viability,” says Glenn Roberts, President and CEO of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, or CGRF [ www.carolinagoldricefoundation.org] “And was in its highest form around the Grand Strand.” But he cites land prices for resort development here, along with rising sea levels and erosion as detrimental.

“It’s going to come back – without a doubt – with angel investors that don’t look at it just strictly as a commercial endeavor,” says Roberts. “They look at it as a cultural exercise first. Once established, the backyard rices will return. And they can be grown anywhere – and that’s a kitchen plot of rice that serves a family in a community where you have a hundred people growing a 30-by-30 plot of rice. Just like in Asia – Japan in particular. Everyone has their own kitchen rice – and that’s when it becomes egalitarian – and it becomes accessible – and the thing that makes that happen is the larger xenophobic, if you will, exercises in rice culture – that brings back these big fields of rice that require really great seedsmanship.”

Countering that optimism, large scale rice cultivation on the Grand Strand is not something award-winning barbecue pit master and entrepreneur Jimmy Hagood sees as viable. “That area doesn’t have the geology. I don’t think you will find it having been grown until you get down below Pawleys Island and certainly around Georgetown.”

“It’s not really a big resurgence,” says Gary Forrester, Senior Horticulture Agent at Clemson University Cooperative Extension in Horry County. “You might get two or three acres here-or-there in this area, but as far as being a viable agricultural commodity – no, it’s not going to happen here. You need massive quantities of acreage and ways to flood it, and of course you’re not going to be able to flood Carolina Forest to plant rice.”

But we found at least one person trying this on the Grand Strand.

David Dorman, owner of Palmetto Farms [ www.palmettofarms.com], has been growing several strains of Carolina rice on a half-acre parcel in Gallivants Ferry. His business is a farm-based milling company founded by Dorman’s grandfather in the 1930s. While the primary focus of this enterprise is stone ground grits and cornmeal, they began looking at rice at the suggestion of a customer.

“It was very difficult for me because I didn’t have any ground set up to do that,” he says. “I had to do a lot of prep work to get our field ready – and the thing for us was not really knowing.” He says his uncle had grown rice in the past, but neither one of them are rice growing experts.

With a nod to the backyard rice concept explained by Roberts, Dorman says his father grew rice, but not for the market. “It was just for them to eat. One of our neighbors – they are all dead and gone now – but they still had a little mortar and pestle for de-hulling rice.” Dorman once pored over an Horry County agricultural survey done around 1900 and discovered that virtually every farm at that time was growing some rice.

“We grew other types first, and now we are working on Charleston Gold. We started out basic and we’re looking to learn more and grow more later.”

Will it catch on?

“Only as a boutique crop,” says Dr. Wink Prince, director of the Waccamaw Center for Cultural and Historical Studies at Coastal Carolina University. “I think perhaps people that are interested in the history of the area may be buying it in that way - but no, I don’t ever see it ever coming back as a commercial crop.”

Like the song, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” could modern methods have spelled the demise of our cash cow?

“As mechanization began to come into agriculture rather than human labor – which before of course had been slaves – the topography of the region is so soft and so mushy that the machines could not operate. They would bog down and just sink in it. And it was tried – but it was just not practical. The machines could not operate in the boggy, marshy conditions of the former rice fields.”

Lee Brockington of Hobcaw Barony on the southern tip of the Waccamaw Neck [ www.hobcawbarony.org] and author of “ Plantation Between the Waters: A Brief History of Hobcaw Barony” speculates, “Today’s attempts at growing rice as well as in so much agriculture – one would expect mechanization to make all the difference and that we would be able to reap benefits and improvements. However, a person cannot help but wonder if rice cultivation was at its most profitable when enslaved Africans were doing all of the work.”

But mechanization worked in what Prince calls Ark-La-Tex: “Areas in East Texas, Arkansas and Northwestern Louisiana were able to produce rice with the new machinery,” he says.

The Way It Was

Other crops such as indigo and cotton also contributed to the economy of colonial South Carolina, but the importance of rice as a commodity in our region cannot be overstated. Joseph A. Opala’s “The Gullah: Rice, Slavery and the Sierra Leone-American Connection [Yale University], lays this out for us:

“The first English-speaking settlement in South Carolina was established on the coast in 1670. For the first thirty years the colonists had little success, but by about 1700 they discovered that rice, imported from Asia, grew well in the inland valley swamps of the Low Country. Throughout the 1700s the economy of South Carolina was based overwhelmingly on the cultivation of rice. This product brought consistently high prices in England, and the colony prospered and expanded. Rice agriculture has been called ‘the best opportunity for industrial profit which 18th century America afforded.’ South Carolina became one of the richest of the North American Colonies; and Charlestown (now Charleston), its capital and principal port, one of the wealthiest and most fashionable cities in early America. Later, because of the extraordinary success in South Carolina, the rice plantation system was extended farther south into coastal Georgia, where it also prospered.”

It also spread north to our area, where rice cultivation prospered.

“Our Georgetown planters were shipping our rice directly to Charleston for export,” says Brockington. “More rice was grown in this Georgetown/Grand Strand district than any other place in the world except the area around Calcutta.”

But there is certainly more to rice here than a South Carolina politician.

Organic uprising

Roberts is also founder of Anson Mills [ www.ansonmills.com], an enterprise that specializes in handmade mill goods from organic heirloom grains.

Roberts, who was involved with historic property restoration and redesign, began an odyssey to include authentic cuisine from bygone eras. The Anson Mills Web site’s biographical information about Roberts is important to note:

“His geographic area ultimately narrowed to South Carolina where Glenn took on broader aspects of redesign projects, carrying those through to the hiring of chefs and marketing staff, and to the planning and execution of celebratory dinners at projects’ end. The menus he helped plan were intended to offer period-authentic dishes. But the ingredients didn’t exist: they were extinct. Local growers did not produce them and would not be persuaded to try. In particular, grains of the era like Carolina Gold rice, lynchpin of the antebellum cuisine of South Carolina, were nearly impossible to source.

Glenn’s career epiphany came on a hot summer afternoon in the kitchen of an historic Charleston property. An elaborate rice dinner was just hours away, and the solitary source on earth for Carolina Gold rice at that time—a grower in Savannah—had delivered his product earlier in the day. When the chef opened the bag to cook the rice, the grains were writhing with weevils. Picking through the rice was laborious and time was of the essence. At 7 o’clock in the evening, Glenn found himself at a prep table with two dishwashers, sweating in his suit and tie, and rousting weevils from Carolina Gold, the dinner swirling by without him. He thought of his mother’s cooking when he was a boy. He looked at the lousy rice. He vowed to put Carolina Gold into serious production so this would never happen again.”

Roberts secured that rice from Dr. Richard Schulze, an ophthalmologist who also grew Carolina Gold at his Turnbridge Plantation in Savannah. And Roberts is quick to defend Schulze. “It wasn’t Dick’s fault,” he says. “It’s just what was there. I was lucky to be included on the list to get that rice, but I was at the end of the list and the rice I got for my first dinner was full of bugs because it was late in the year and that’s all that was left.”

Schulze procured his Carolina Gold seed from the USDA seed bank at Texas A&M University, and Roberts followed suit. “I thought Dick got his seed from China, but it was China, Texas.” He began growing small-plot Carolina Gold well before he formed Anson Mills [in 1998] – but through the company, Roberts enjoyed his “first real harvest” in 2000. The next year, he was able to take on full production of certified organic Carolina Gold rice.

Roberts credits Clemson entomologist Merle Shepard for spearheading the resurgence of Carolina Gold rice. Additionally, Shepard bred a short-stalked aromatic descendant of Carolina Gold called Charleston Gold at Clemson University’s Coastal research and Education Center in Charleston – this in tandem with agronomist, geneticist and 2006 World Food Prize recipient Gurdev Khush, formerly of the International Rice research Institute. Charleston Gold was officially approved by the Texas Department of Agriculture in February 2011, after strains were provided to Anna McClung of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Rice Research Unit in Beaumont, Texas for field-testing and recommendation. This effort started in 1998.

The idea for the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation [which became a reality in 2004] began as a result of an exchange between Roberts and Shepard more than a decade ago – when Roberts was a bit frustrated at his attempts to grow Carolina Gold. “I told him this was getting really expensive, although I am happy to give grants [through Anson Mills] – and I got the idea of being grant-giving and not grant seeking from Charles Duell [President, Middleton Place Foundation] and from Merle. Merle said, ‘you have to purchase science to support this for the long term. [Carolina Gold] is a landrace rice – and it’s not going to stay the same.’ Bottom line is you have to select it narrowly every year by seed protocol or it will start going wacko. You can’t just grow it and say, ‘oh boy – great harvest’ – clean it up a little bit and replant it. Pretty soon you are going to have giraffes and kazoos flying around there instead of rice.” Landrace crops are said to develop by adaptation.

“That’s when I got the baptism of fire,” says Roberts.

Roberts says Charleston Gold will not yet eclipse Carolina Gold. “Charleston Gold is a modern rice. It yields three times as much as Carolina Gold per acre – so you don’t need the acreage.” But he can envision Charleston Gold eclipsing Carolina Gold commercially, but not culturally.

Culturally and idealistically, Roberts embraces a culinary concept known as the Carolina Rice Kitchen – and this is also explained on the Anson Mills site: “Carolina Rice Kitchen cuisine arose when three distinct rice cultures came together to build rice canals on the sea islands of Carolina and Georgia: Venetian rice farmers who designed the canals, Africans who brought their rice management methods to the endeavor, and Native Americans who worked in the fields. The association of these peoples and their cultures resulted in a vibrant melting-pot exchange that ultimately became a new cuisine.”

Roberts elaborates for us:

“The Rice Kitchen belongs to everybody from Southern Virginia to Northern Florida. And it changes about every 50 miles as you go south. So the Rice Kitchen that’s indigenous to the Myrtle Beach region is not the same set of foods that belong to Charleston. It’s not the same set of food that belongs to Beaufort – not the same set of food that belongs to Savannah. All of the foods are terrific – we come at the Rice Kitchen in the region of Myrtle Beach through the Pee Dee foodways of chicken bog and things like that – which are in their basis – African rice dishes in community cooking. And you come from community cooking through barbecue right back home and get back to perlos and things like that.”

When the seedsmanship is there, Roberts asserts that stable rice seed is available pro bono to the public. “They can grow it. If it starts to get crazy, they have a neighbor that they can get rice from or they can come back to the big provider and get it there. And that seed should be pro bono. That’s why the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation exists – to provide rice seed for these efforts – for free.”

The fact that the rice trade in South Carolina and the American South was once associated with slavery might be, for some, an inconvenient realization. Is this too painful a reminder of the past? “Slavery is more than front-and-center. And yeah – it is horrific. It sheds a lot of really uncomfortable light on a lot of things – but you can’t ignore it.”

Rice for the Southern Soul

Entrepreneur Hagood has thrown his hat into the Charleston Gold ring. Owner of Food for The Southern Soul [www.foodforthesouthernsoul.com], a gourmet specialty food and catering business, Hagood also maintains a small restaurant at the Charleston City Market, The Food For the Southern Soul ‘Cue-osk.

Last year, he grew four acres of Charleston Gold on his family farm on the Ashepoo River, Lavington Farms in Colleton County.

“We’re fourth-generation landowners down there,” he says. “We restored a hundred-acre field that we’ve been hunting. We were growing corn there and then flooding it – and we’ve had some really good duck hunts over the last two years.”

He started working with Roberts on the possibility of growing rice. “We were growing in dry conditions because we were planting corn, millets and other crops there.” Roberts told Hagood that Charleston Gold could be grown in a dry condition as well. “We drained the field below the grade of the wood line, and it’s right next to the Ashepoo River. We can pump it dry – plant – and grow rice on it, and harvest the rice, which we’ll be doing again in a couple, three weeks.”

Last year’s harvest yielded 4,500 pounds of Charleston Gold. Hagood says he sells a good deal of this to GrowFood Carolina, a Charleston-based food co-op owned by the Coastal Conservation League. “They are a huge customer of mine,” he says. “This enables me to get this rice to about 30 restaurants in and around Charleston.” He says many restaurants come daily and buy produce and other products fresh from supplier. “To use the old parlance – they are ‘making a market,’ meaning that they are buying products from farmers and then selling those products to restaurant owners and chefs.”

But Hagood is also a customer. “I sell them my rice and then turn right around and buy okra and all other kinds of stuff from them that I pickle and use in my catering operation. It’s a two-way street.” Hagood’s Charleston Gold is also available at Charleston area grocery stores such as Whole Foods, Piggly Wiggly, Harris Teeter, Publix and BI-LO.

He says his product is being well received. “People love it. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has done a great job bringing back Carolina Gold, and Charleston Gold was its first cousin – And when you combine Carolina Gold with an aromatic Basmati rice – when you cook it – you can tell immediately – the way it smells is the way it tastes – it really is a great product. We have personally used it a lot at home and giving it around to friends and stuff like that. People usually say this is the best rice they’ve ever had.”

For Hagood, growing and selling Charleston Gold was almost a no-brainer. “I guess we spotted an opportunity to potentially get a return on the land, so to speak. If we could figure it out where the net cost is zero to have all of these ducks coming in there, wouldn’t you want to do it?” Couple the cost offset with the opportunity to market and sell it via Food for the Southern Soul, and the outcome is golden. “I’ve gotten to know Glenn Roberts pretty well over the years, and their help through the [Carolina Gold Rice] foundation and supporting our cause and lending their expertise – and us supporting their cause – we’d be crazy not to do it.”

The meat-and-potatoes of rice production

Plumfield Plantation on the Great Pee Dee River in Darlington County is the epicenter of rice production in South Carolina – and the home of Carolina Plantation Rice [ www.carolinaplantationrice.com]. Owner Campbell Coxe has been producing rice here for the better part of 20 years. The company’s Web site says Coxe reintroduced aromatic rice to South Carolina in 1996, and Coxe’s mission is to bring commercial rice production back to South Carolina.

Although Carolina Plantation Rice produces Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold, Coxe says the company’s flagship rice is the Della variety, a long grain basmati-type rice. “It is extremely aromatic,” he says. “It smells and tastes completely different than regular white rice. We have customers all over the United States that buy rice from us because of the fact that it’s different and it’s got gourmet-type flavor. These people don’t even know the history of rice in South Carolina, but they buy our rice because it stands alone as a quality gourmet product.”

In 2001, Coxe says he made a huge commitment to rice production here by building a rice mill. “Prior to that, we were shipping our rice to Arkansas, having it milled and then shipping it back. Once we got to a certain volume of rice, that didn’t make much sense.” He adds that with diesel prices topping four dollars a gallon, the trucking would have eaten him alive.

And Carolina Plantation Rice does millwork for what Coxe calls upstart people, including Anson Mills and Hagood – and for other smaller producers for whom building a mill or shipping their product to Arkansas might not be economically viable.

“So we’re kind of the reason that rice is resurgent – that it’s coming back to South Carolina. Because we are building the infrastructure to make that happen – not only for us but for other people as well.”

Coxe, who is also Secretary of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, comes from a necessarily divergent approach. Whereas Roberts seems to be more about preserving the heritage of Carolina Gold and furthering the egalitarian backyard rice and Carolina Rice Kitchen cuisine, Coxe is all about production.

“I love the history behind the rice, an I think that’s a great thing, but without production, it counts for very little.” He admits, however, that Roberts is in a different market. “I think his is 100 percent organic, which makes it even more difficult to grow.”

Carolina Plantation Rice is a farm gate to dinner plate proposition, according to Coxe: “There is nobody in between us and the consumer, which is exactly the way I want it to be. I have direct control of my product from the day it goes into the ground to the day it gets on FedEx Ground.” He says the Internet has brought the world to his swamp. Direct sales seem to be the magic bullet. “We are in the middle of a very, very rural area, but we can compete with anybody, anywhere”

His products are known as new crop rices. “We freshly mill our rice as the orders come in and then send it out within a few days of the order. You are smelling and tasting a completely different animal than you would with a Blue Ribbon or a Mahatma, where one of these things has been in storage for God knows how long.”

His vision for rice production in South Carolina lies in the realm of specialty rices and niche marketing – and seems in lock step with the local food movement.

“What we have to do is find niche markets for boutique type, gourmet rices – and go directly to the consumer,” he says. “You’ve got to direct your market to foodies – people that are gourmet conscious – looking for something different. I think people are really getting back into the slow food.”

But again – production is paramount.

“Somebody has got to go out there and grease the factories and make the combines run – plant the crops – and pump the water and mill the rice. You have got to have volume to get somebody’s attention and that’s the only way that production rice is going to come back to South Carolina.”

The Palmetto State may be entering a new rice phase, but the takeaway seems to be that the Grand Strand will likely have to look at rice through the lens of history.

“Full scale, commercial production on anything like the scale that was here in the 19th century will not happen,” says CCU’s Prince. “Most of the rice fields are overgrown now with huge amounts of timber, and it would be an enormous undertaking to try to clear some of that now. What are you going to do? The machinery would sink right down to the axles.”

“To imagine that rice cultivation in this area would ever return to the world’s second largest producer? No, I don’t think that’s possible,” adds Brockington.

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