The New Organic Rice Revolution
By Caryn Niedringhaus
October 14, 2010
My husband Andy and I have maintained backyard vegetable, flower, and herb gardens for over 30 years. Neighbors comment on how much work it takes for us to keep it going. I admit it is a labor of love, but we both enjoy fresh vegetables “vine ripened” and picked right before cooking, and we especially enjoy being outside in the elements with the plants and little animals that find their way into our garden. Two years ago, we started macrobiotics and enrolled in a program at the Strengthening Health Institute in Philadelphia. We started to muse about growing rice on our land. We’ve grown different varieties of millet and sweet corn for several years, but rice seemed to be a stretch. Without a farmer nearby to compare notes, I began to wonder if a backyard rice paddy was just a dream.
That all changed this July when we visited two small rice fields, both located within a half day’s driving distance from our home in upstate New York, The Rice Paddy Tour was orchestrated by Edward Esko, a long-time macrobiotic teacher. He is abuzz with visions of the future where society as a whole will move towards more families owning and maintaining their own backyard gardens and renewable energy sources. The small group he gathered for the rice tour included Alex Jack from Amberwaves; Mirea Ellis from the Kushi Institute; Edward’s son, Sennin; Milica Zec, a Serbian film maker living in New York; eight Kushi Institute Level 3 students from Japan and the United States; and Andy Davis and myself.
Eating rice grown in our area is just too exciting for words. This mutual enthusiasm of seeing a rice paddy in our area permeated the entire group, and within a half hour we were all driving together acting like old friends.
It was a beautiful mid-summer New England day, sunny, warm, and clear blue skies. Our first stop was at the South River Miso Company in Conway, MA. Christian Elwell, founder and owner, has been growing dry-land rice for over 25 years, and rice in a small rice paddy for 3 years. The rice paddy was circular in form and only a few yards behind the miso factory. The rice plants were organized into rows consisting of little hills each boasting two to three rice plants. All the rice plants had multiple grass leaves that were slender and growing straight up towards the sun and sky from their individual tiny hills. Most of the plants were transplanted in June, although this was the first year where one row was a direct seeding. It looked to me as if they were catching up quite nicely to the transplants. At the time of this tour the rice was in its early growth stage. The plants were very healthy and strong, and a bright emerald green water system was devised using a pump to bring fresh, clean, South River water up hill into a landscaped pond which functions as a holding tank, allowing the sun to pre-heat the water before it goes into the rice paddy. Rice needs a long growing season, and water warmed by the sun is of utmost importance in reaching maturity of the seed heads.
We all stood at the edge of the paddy and gazed silently into the glistening green splendor, speechless and stunned at how beautiful it was. The vibrancy and energy was captivating. Little green frogs croaked and we all laughed. Christian pointed to a pair sitting on some blades of rice grass. Everyone began to run over to try and get a picture of them. Little tadpoles were swimming around in the water under some algae. This was the first year that the green algae were covering the water and of concern, as they may reduce the ability of the sun to penetrate deep into the water and keep the temperature up. Christian noted how the ecology of the backyard landscape changed after he created a wetland habitat that attracted a host of little frogs and dragonflies into the backyard. We did not see any of the dragonflies, since the aquatic larvae had emerged in early June to become mature dragonflies. Christian noted they frequented the paddy often.
The dry-land rice was planted in a rectangular plot a short distance up from the paddy. Christian then gave us a tour of the lower field next to the South River, where varietal heirloom grains such as pearl millet, heirloom wheat, quinoa, naked oats, buckwheat, and an African tobacco plant thrive. Christian walked around with us for over an hour, talking and answering all our questions, taking time from his work and busy day. As we climbed back up-slope toward the rice plantings, we spontaneously joined together for a group meditation for world peace around the rice paddy. We sat on the grass forming “a ring around the paddy,” feeling the warmth of the sun and the energy of the rice.
Alex began the meditation by reciting the central role played by rice in human society, including the life of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, whose anniversary we were celebrating that weekend. Edward concluded the ceremony with a group meditation and visualization in which we projected the peaceful energy we all felt in the rice field to all people throughout the world.
As the words lingered and slowly drifted up beyond the trees and into the sky, we soaked in the warmth from the sun and the green energy of the grain plants. We offered our heartfelt thanks and headed to our cars.
The Vermont Farm
The second farm we visited was in Vermont. This family-run farm wishes to remain anonymous at this time; however they welcomed our little group. It was a short walk through rampant comfrey and wild apples along a well-cleared and worn path that led us to three rice paddies formed into neatly crafted rectangles. There were different varieties of rice that were all labeled and planted with precision to the ultimate degree. You could see that a very attentive and hard-working farmer was the owner of this operation. It also had an elevated warming pond where the water was tempered before flowing into the rice paddies. The rice plants were at the same young stage we saw at South River, growing upright, strong and vibrant. I noticed that in this paddy the water had a thick surface layer of floating duckweed (and not algae). We learned that this plant had just appeared this year, and the growers shared the same concerns we heard expressed at South River. I could see that this is the year in which algae or duckweed are carefully watched in corresponding rice farms.
After we inspected the paddies we moved to a shady spot under a grove of trees, and the farmer described his experiences and vision for small-scale rice growing in the Northeast. Our host stressed his interest in an ecological approach to developing and adapting traditional small-scale rice farming to the region. The creation of rice paddies should not destroy natural wetland habitats with the many benefits they provide. Rather, landscapes should be assessed for locations where rice paddies can enhance the connectivity of natural wetland habitats, restoring cover, enlarging natural area buffers, and preserving functional flood plains.
I was able to pick up some important considerations about small-scale rice growing. Key factors include the suitability of the soil characteristics and a clean and abundant source of water. Soil makeup should be of a clay consistency in order to retain water in the paddy. I also learned that there are many varieties of rice to choose from. This came as a surprise, as the variety of organic brown rice we buy is typically not labeled. Some of the most promising varietals for growing in the Northeast are from the northernmost regions of Japan, which has a similar climate to Massachusetts and Vermont. Many varieties of seed are available to try, provided by agricultural field stations and land-grant colleges such as Cornell University. One could take some time to read about the different aspects of each variety, a winter project, for sure. We learned there are other varieties that are adapted to dry-land production. Chris had shown us his dry-land rice bed at South River. Both the dry-land and paddy rice seemed very similar to me. I hope to return to see the rice when it is flowering and maturing into rice heads. I wonder if then the varietal differences become more evident.
Backyard vegetable gardens and family farms require daily work and attention, and rice paddies are no exception. I reflected on the amount of attention and time farmers and gardeners gives to their plants. I was also impressed with the harvest prospects of rice plants. Each hill contains two to three rice plants. One rice plant produces 2-3 stalks, and each stalk produces approximately 125-130 flowers, which in turn each produce a grain of rice. I thought, “if one plant produces 100 seeds one year, then next year those 100 seeds produce ... 10,000!” The estimate suggests that one acre of rice could potentially yield 2 tons of rice!
As I drove home and pondered the day, the wise words of the Vermont rice farmer echoed in my mind. When asked how to learn to grow rice he paused, smiled, and answered, “The rice plants will teach you.”
You can view the Rice Tour at the South River paddy at: youtube.com/user/GrosseLeben#p/a/u/1/5M5XEb7xSV0