Friday, March 7, 2008

Rice in America - A Brief History

Rice is an amazing grain. Throughout history, it has been one of man’s most important foods. According to American Rice, Inc., archeological evidence suggests rice has been feeding mankind for more than 5,000 years. The first documented account is found in a decree on rice planting authorized by a Chinese emperor about 2,800 BC, yet little is known about the origins of rice cultivation, although there is no doubt that rice first appeared in East Asia, India, China and Vietnam. Today, this unique grain helps sustain two-thirds of the world’s population.

In Burma a person eats 500 pounds of rice a year, an astonishing figure, but perhaps not so astonishing when you consider that Burma is right in the middle of an area where rice cultivation most likely originated. From China to ancient Greece, from Persia to the Nile Delta, rice migrated across the centuries and across the continents, eventually finding its way to the Western Hemisphere.

In the United States, the average person consumes only twenty-five pounds of rice per year, with about four pounds of that number attributed to the rice used for brewing American beer. But, rice consumption is on the rise. In fact, Americans eat twice as much rice now than they did ten years ago.

Good For You

Marketing analysts attribute this phenomenon to the consumer awareness of rice as a healthy food. Rice is naturally high in complex carbohydrates, contains almost no fat, is cholesterol free, and low in sodium. Almost all the nutrients are stripped from white rice when the bran layer is removed during milling; ninety percent of all American grown rice is enriched with thiamine, niacin and iron and in some instances riboflavin, vitamin D and calcium.

Brown rice has five times more Vitamin E and three times more magnesium than white rice. Brown rice provides twice as much fiber, but is not an especially rich source of fiber. On the other hand, rice bran alone is an excellent source of fiber. Rice is a fair source of protein containing all eight essential amino acids. It is low in the amino acid lysine, which is found in beans making the classic combination of rice and beans, popularly known as complimentary proteins, a particularly healthful dish. Rice is gluten free and easily digestible making it a good choice for infants, people with wheat allergies or digestive problems. A half cup of cooked white rice provides 82 calories; an equal amount of brown rice provides 89 calories. Oh, and just so you know, an equal portion of rice and pasta are about equal in calories.

The United States has traditionally been more of a rice exporter than a consumer. In the early eighteenth century rice grown along the coastal plains of the Carolinas and Georgia was a major export. A labor intensive crop, eventually many of the wealthiest rice plantations had hundreds of slaves. Familiar with African rice cultivation, the slaves are credited with contributing significantly to the industry before it was destroyed by the Civil War.

With the mechanization of agriculture, rice growing moved west to Louisiana. Today enough rice grows in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Missouri to rank the United States as the twelfth largest rice producer worldwide and the second largest exporter of rice (first is Thailand). The United States now exports about half of all the rice it grows.

How It All Began

Enterprising colonists were the first to cultivate rice in America. It began quite by accident in 1685; a storm-battered ship sailing from Madagascar Just barely made it into the Charles Towne harbor. To repay the kindness of the colonists for repairs to the ship, the captain made a gift of a small quantity of "Golden Seede Rice" (named for its color) to a local planter.

The marsh lands bordered by fresh tidal water rivers of the Carolinas and Georgia proved to be perfect for rice production. The soils were rich, flat, fertile, and so soft a man could hardly stand on them.  By 1700, rice was established as a major crop for the colonists; 300 tons of  "Carolina Golde Rice", was shipped to England. Colonists produced more rice than there were ships to carry it. By 1726, the Port of Charleston was exporting about tons of "Carolina Golde," which later became the standard of high-quality rice throughout the world. When America gained independence 50 years later, rice had become one of her major agricultural businesses.

Eventually rice moved westward. The sprawling plantations of the Gulf Coast, parceled out to soldiers returning from “The Great War”, became a new home to rice crops. Still, high labor costs kept the industry from expanding. Not until mechanized farming methods came into use would the Gulf Coast rice industry become viable.

The 1849 Gold Rush brought people from all nations to California. Among them were an estimated 40,000 Chinese, whose staple food was rice. To feed the immigrants, rice production became a necessity. Farmers in the Sacramento Valley found rice would adapt well to heavy clay soil conditions that were largely unsuited to other crops. By 1920, California was a major rice-producing state.

In 1884, the Machine Age was beginning to affect American life. The broad prairie land of southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas has solid soils which could hold up heavy equipment like the machines used for the production of wheat in Iowa. A revolution of mechanization followed, establishing today’s major Southern rice growing states: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. More recently, farmers of Southern Florida began growing rice.

From its meager beginnings in South Carolina, rice has become a major U.S. agricultural product. Nearly 90 percent of the rice consumed in the United States is produced within its borders. Technological improvements have evolved over the years to make American rice production the most efficient and advanced in the world. New mechanization and techniques have helped the American rice farmer reduce the costly time spent in the field to only seven man-hours per acre. Some Asian countries continue to require 300 man-hours per acre. One of the largest exporters of rice in the world, the United States is respected worldwide for its abundant production of high-quality rice.