The third most important cereal grain in the United States, after wheat and corn, rice is one of America’s major food exports, as well as being used in quantity domestically.
Rice was originally domesticated in Southeast Asia and was then introduced into European cultures that settled what is now the United States in ancient times. Rice is a wetlands grass that requires substantial amounts of standing water to grow. As a result, it can be grown successfully only in areas with sufficient rainfall and irrigation. Most of the areas suitable for rice production in the United States are found in the South, where river deltas provide abundant water to keep rice fields (known as paddies) flooded.
The cultivation of rice in the American South predates the founding of the United States. A frequently related story holds that the original plantings were the result of a ship carrying rice from Madagascar being wrecked near Charleston, South Carolina. When the people of the colony there helped the sailors repair their ship, the captain left a small supply of seed rice as a token of his gratitude.
Early American rice production was generally accomplished entirely by hand, and it typically did not depend on irrigation. Rather, farmers planted rice in small patches in low-lying areas that would trap rainwater. If rainfalls proved inadequate, the crop might fail. As a result of this risky technique, successful crops were often called “providence rice.” Rice was generally seen as a supplemental crop that could utilize ground unsuitable for the more usual crops of wheat and corn, rather than as a cash crop in its own right.
By the turn of the twentieth century, improved cultivation techniques were being introduced even into the impoverished South. Deliberate irrigation was introduced, which made growing rice less risky. In addition, areas of rice cultivation began to move westward, away from the traditional Atlantic coastal regions to Louisiana, Texas, and California. In California, large numbers of Chinese and Japanese immigrants created a strong demand for their traditional rice-based cuisine. Anglo-Americans were also consuming increasing amounts of rice.
By the late twentieth century, rice production in the United States had become heavily commercialized and mechanized. High labor costs made it impractical to transplant rice plants from nursery fields into the fields from which they would be harvested, as was the normal practice in Asian countries.
At harvest time, the water would be pumped out of the paddy and the rice allowed to dry before being harvested. Because the ground was often still moist, combine harvesters used in rice production often would have rubber or steel tracks rather than wheels to reduce compaction.
American rice production benefited relatively early from the development of genetic science. Although scientific breeding of rice lagged behind that of corn and wheat, largely as a result of the historic impoverishment of the South after the U.S. Civil War, by the second half of the twentieth century scientists were examining how rice production might be increased by selective breeding. The original impetus for genetic improvement of rice was demand by American commercial rice producers. As humanitarian interests noticed the practicality of greatly increased rice yields, however, they realized that it would be possible to make these high-yielding rice strains available to impoverished countries. In theory, such “super rice” could banish hunger.
However, the realities proved somewhat less than the idealists had hoped. Much of the impressive yield enjoyed by American rice farmers using improved strains came from a synergy between the genetic strengths of the rice and the scientific application of artificial fertilizers that were generally unavailable to farmers in developing nations.
In addition, there were serious questions as to whether American commercial farming techniques were actually beneficial in the long term, even within the American context. For instance, rice was being grown for export in many areas only because of relatively cheap electric or gasoline-powered pumps that could transport water in quantity from rivers and aquifers (underground water-bearing structures), when in fact other, less water-demanding crops might have been better choices for the region. In addition, there was evidence that the use of intensive irrigation was leading to destructive salt deposits in rice fields. Finally, artificial fertilizers seemed increasingly dangerous to the environment, because when they washed out to sea, they contributed to the growth of algal blooms that created vast oceanic “dead zones,” in which fish could not survive.
Even in the twenty-first century, American rice production remained atypical as compared with that of other nations. While most rice-producing countries consumed their own harvests at home, as much as 60 percent of American rice crops were exported, either commercially or as part of food-assistance programs to impoverished countries. In addition, much of the rice used domestically was in highly processed forms, such as rice cakes and puffed rice breakfast cereals. However, there was a small but increasing demand for organically grown rice, which would generally be consumed as brown rice rather than in processed forms.
Clay, Jason. World Agriculture and the Environment. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004. Includes a study of the environmental effects of raising rice, both in the United States and abroad. Hazell, P. R. B. The Green Revolution Reconsidered: The Impact of High-Yielding Rice Varieties in South India. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. Critical overview of factors causing rice varieties that produced well in American agriculture to fail to meet expectations in the developing world. Midkiff, Ken. Not A Drop to Drink: America’s Water Crisis. Novaro, Calif.: New World Library, 2007. Includes information on the problems involved in growing rice in Texas and California, where rice crops drain aquifers faster than they are replenished. The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation. 2d ed. Belleville, Md.: Sustainable Agriculture Network, 2000. Includes profile of a California farmer growing rice without intensive fertilizer use.
Colonial economic systems