How rice is planted in the United States

Consider…the technology involved in planting rice in southwest Louisiana. It was morning at the Jennings Municipal Airport in Jefferson Davis Parish, which is part of the seventh congressional district, the largest rice-producing district in the country.

A group of men talked about the previous night’s tornadoes and hauled hundred-pound sacks of seed rice from the rear of a flatbed truck, slit the sacks, and dumped the rice into a large hopper.

The loader truck lifted the hopper, with its 2000 pounds of rice, and in less than 10 minutes the seeds were inside the tank of a single-seat Grumman-American AG-Cat airplane, and the plane was aloft.

The seeds were kernels of rice left to soak overnight in a nearby canal. Already little shoots had sprouted from each kernel.

Two days before, the rice could have been hulled, milled, and sold for premium prices. It was the best of the previous year’s crop, carefully selected; if all went well, a high percentage of the new crop would be long, narrow kernels, white and unbroken when the husks were removed and the bran milled off. Milling tends to break inferior grades’ kernels, which stick together and appear mushy.

Mushy rice is not where the money is.

The farmers here said they were producing rice for the “American housewife,” verbal shorthand for consumers who buy the white rice that lacks most of the minerals, protein, and niacin for which rice is famous and who insist on each cooked kernel being separate and visually attractive. To meet specifications for millable rice, research services of federal and state agriculture departments have developed special varieties, which are also adapted to the climate, soil, and pest conditions of the region.

The seed rice in the tank of the Grumman airplane was the product of this research.

It was May Day, and more than 90 percent of the crop had already been planted. The airplane, owned by farmer Ed Krielow, flew low over fields already green and high from an early March planting. The rush was on to get the final seed in the ground.

The pilot swooped low over a rectangle flooded with water, a rice paddy or “field” with tractor-made levees poking up from the water’s surface. Two men stood on opposite sides of the field holding white flags in their hands to tell the pilot where to plant the seeds.

The plane flew so close to the water that there were only inches to spare. Little ripples appeared. “Do you see the seeds?” Ed Krielow asked, but in the excitement the observer didn’t know what to look at.

There were ripples, but the plane looked as if it was about to crash into the telephone poles and electric wires as it turned around and went back into the rice field.

Ed Krielow said, dismissing the danger, “You should see that boy flying when we spray Stam [weed killer]. His wheels graze right on the levees.”

This was not especially reassuring, but this time the observer knew where to look.

Plane.

A white shower of seeds.

Ripples.

“See?” he said. “That was the seed we saw loaded a little while ago.”

That was how it was possible to plant rice with only three people— a pilot and two fellows holding white flags.

–Joel Solkoff

Copyright ©by Joel Solkoff, 2013. All rights reserved.

The Politics of Food is available at: http://www.joelsolkoff.com/book-store/books/the-politics-of-food/

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