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-labour 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 labourers.
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 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!
World class technological efficiencies have enabled the U.S. to become one of the largest rice exporters in the world.