Charleston Gold Rice: Making the Old New Again

written by glenn roberts

originally published in the rice paper newsletter, 2009

There is a little known movement with a quiet but insistent and growing voice in our planet’s scientific community. This shift is most noticeable in those scientists whose disciplines create, study and release foods with better nutrition and higher natural yields into third world agriculture where famine looms as a continual threat. Recently, the best of these scien- tists have begun additional, voluntary, unfunded research to create better foods for the first world as well. If it weren’t for their dedication, years of post- doctoral research and lack of motives for personal gain, these new first world research projects could be labeled “hobby” projects, but the fact that their work is on par with the best worldwide seed devel- opment corporations dispels that notion with cer- tainty. In the following paragraphs we explore the challenges and rewards of one such collaboration and discover how important this new movement is for the future of American agriculture and American cuisine.

Dr. Gurdev Khush and Dr. Merle Shepard reside on opposite coasts and pursue complimentary but vastly different fields of research. Dr. Khush is a leading plant breeder on faculty at UC Davis and Dr. Shepard is professor of entomology at Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Both scientists are recognized worldwide for decades of research pro- grams in Southeast Asia and both are emeritus from the International Rice Research Institute in the Phil- ippines. But the fact that they are close friends is the best explanation for their unexpected collaboration on an historic rice breeding effort in the Philippines, South Carolina and Texas since 1998. Both scientists engage in this research and development unfunded to be able to deliver this rice to the American public and beyond with no proprietary constraints. For those unfamiliar with the rigor of new rice variety introduction in the American rice industry, it would be an understatement to say Khush and Shepard’s unfunded collaboration is a rare.

The understanding of rice farming, cultural history and breeding research Dr. Shepard and Dr. Khush draw upon to create their new rice variety is also unique in our rice industry and critically important to the future of rice horticulture in the Americas. For their new rice, Dr. Khush combined heirloom Caro- lina Gold rice traits with quality, disease resistance and productive strengths from many rice varieties into one new variety that combines the best traits of its parents. Imagine juggling dozens of balls while running at top speed while reciting a Shakespeare sonnet while dodging bullets ... this is the concep- tual idea of Dr. Khush’s plant breeding talent as art. To provide a cultural and historic foundation for Khush’s art, Dr. Shepard, Indiana Jones style, mined data from antique farm journals, scoured heirloom rice seed banks worldwide, evaluated traditional third world rice farming methods and collected for study rare indigenous rice varieties from fields in the far corners of our planet. Khush and Shepard took a final verification step by employing genetic marker analysis to authenticate the results of their collection and breeding. By joining their research strengths, both scientists hold an exceptional awareness of the arc of rice development worldwide over the last few centuries. This merger of disciplines makes possible their new American rice de- rived from America’s oldest rice.

America’s oldest rice emanates from the time of our revolution in the rice fields around Charleston, South Carolina. Prior to that time, we grew rice in Virginia, Carolina and Georgia (wildly popular and known generically in Europe as “Carolina Rice”) from seed grown for centuries around the Mediter- ranean, coastal Africa, Indonesia and the Far East.

During our revolution, British forces destroyed cereal grain seed stock throughout the colonies. This tactic was especially severe in the South where rice production and export played a major role in eco- nomic stability. After our revolution, scientist farm- ers throughout the Southern states launched un- precedented development efforts in marketing, technology and seed breeding to revive the South- ern rice export industry. Drayton, in his “A View of South Carolina” published in 1803, states there were over one hundred rice varieties used for breeding new rice for production shortly after our revolution. The highest quality and most successful rice was given the name “Carolina Gold” for its hull color in the field and lovely subtle gold patina when milled correctly and observed in sunlight.

But the recent trend toward abbreviation of Carolina Gold rice history and diversity to one export variety from our revolution until it faded from production during the Great Depression is the greatest chal- lenge to its cultural survival. Carolina scientist farmers created numerous rice cultivars from exotic rice varieties originating in Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean Rim. Consequently, more than one variety marketed as CGR attained production suc- cess here and subsequently enjoyed marketing suc- cess in Europe and the Far East. Dr. David Shields provides an excellent description and history of one new pre-Civil War Carolina rice, “Long Gold”, in this newsletter. Dr. Shield’s piece is groundbreaking for many reasons but it is particularly important for its confirmation of the continuity of rice improve- ment efforts in the South from our revolution to modern times.

Continual improvement of CGR forms the genesis of Dr. Shepard’s and Dr. Khush’s approach to a new rice variety based upon one well documented pure heirloom CGR. Their work underscores CGR’s criti- cal importance in American rice history and its fu- ture cultural relevance within American cuisine.

Dr. Khush and Dr. Shepard began their project in 1998 by setting their CGR improvement parameters well above modern rice quality and production standards. They chose their end use characteristics carefully to reflect the best traits of CGR while in- corporating new rice agronomic and culinary quali- ties that guarantee market success in the 21st cen- tury. Most remarkable, and in addition to modern breeding protocol, Khush and Shepard determined in advance to include natural selection improve- ment protocol used by Antebellum CGR scientist farmers in the final selection of their new rice. All of Dr. Khush’s crosses were grown out by Dr. Shepard beginning in 1999 at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and then transferred in 2004 to research plots at Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center. Dr. Shepard and Dr. Khush eliminated the less desirable offspring over the next three years. By fall harvest in 2007, Dr. Shepard and Dr. Khush selected the final most successful im- proved CGR strain and made two important deci- sions: In the spring of 2008, they sent seed to Dr. Anna McClung, rice research project leader, USDA- ARS Beaumont, TX, for replication and study to verify its productive and quality characteristics and insure its introduction to American rice farming as a public variety with a high degree of integrity. They also conducted two quality tasting regimes: a formal food tasting panel evaluation of their new rice su- pervised by food scientists at Clemson University and an informal tasting trial with selected profes- sional chefs around the USA. The results of both evaluations will be presented in a future CGRF newsletter.

Dr. McClung planted the new rice in the spring of 2008 in research plots at the USDA-ARS research station in Beaumont, Texas, to study characteristics and replication. Dr. McClung also engaged the growers at Texas Rice Improvement Association (TRIA) to grow a small field of the new Khush/ Shepard rice for production trial analysis. By late spring, Dr. McClung observed remarkable early vigor and yield development traits in the Khush/ Shepard rice. By mid-summer it was obvious that the new Khush/Shepard rice was extraordinarily vigorous and competitive, a prime attribute for successful low input organic horticulture to address naturally occurring weed pressure in rice fields without the use of herbicide. By September 1, field trial yield analysis by TRIA growers in association with Dr. McClung verified that the new Khush/ Shepard rice is very high yielding. Their informal projection was between 6000 and 9000 pounds per acre at harvest. Noting a distant threat of a tropical storm system, Dr. McClung invited me to TRIA to review the progress of the research plots and field trial. I flew in on September 2 with now Hurricane IKE threatening the region. Dr. McClung arranged a meeting with Mike Douget, President, and Julio Castillo, Seedsman, TRIA. Mike and Julio immedi- ately stated they thought IKE was a threat to Dr. McClung’s Khush/Shepard rice plots and also the field trial of the new rice. Because of their concerns we immediately departed for the fields to review the state of the Khush/Shepard rice. It was too im- mature to harvest, sadly. (Julio promised he would try to bring in as much research rice as he could before IKE made landfall. Julio told me later he worked into the night before IKE hit to bring in the 2008 CGR.) On September 8, Julio and Mike found 2 large storage bins destroyed, the roof gone on one seed house and another damaged. The worst dam- age came from tornados spawned by IKE that rav- aged much of the TRIA rice in the fields, including some of our Khush/Shepard rice. Some lodged and some had seed stripped off the heads. But with the support of Mike Douget and Dr. McClung, Julio was able to harvest enough Khush/Shepard rice to plant five acres in 2009.

Dr. McClung will include the Khush/Shepard rice in its second year of a five state yield trial this sum- mer. In addition, Dr. McClung with place the rice in a comparative study with other modern aromatic rices and CGR and also in an N response study.

Dr. McClung selected panicles of the Khush/ Shepard rice from what was grown in 2008 and sent them to the USDA-ARS Puerto Rico nursery for grow out. Dr. McClung expects to harvest there in late April and plans to return with several hundred “true to type” panicles that will be planted in Beaumont, TX, as headrow. Headrow seed will be harvested in the fall and will be used to register the variety and submit it as a voucher sample to the ARS world collection. The headrow seed that Dr. McClung produces in this year can be provided to TRIA or others for foundation seed production of the new Khush/Shepard rice in 2010.

Here are the findings to date:

The Khush/Shepard rice is at least equivalent in production yield with modern rice and it may be exceptionally productive. It is very early to emerge and very vigorous in early growth. It has excellent agronomic characteristics. It has remarkable yield potential. Informal physiological, morphological and DNA analysis of the Khush/Shepard rice shows it is similar to Jasmine 85, a widely popular modern production rice. Dr. McClung and Mike Douget suggest one more year of formal evaluation for food and agronomic study. Dr. Bastos, a Brazilian rice geneticist expressed interest in the Khush/Shepard rice for his country after observing it in the field at TRIA in July 2008.

Dr. Khush and Dr. Shepard have created an exceptional rice. It is an elegant aromatic long grain Ja- ponica dwarf of pure Carolina Gold Rice with a very promising future and the hallmark distinction of golden seeds. It mills beautifully with a high per- centage of whole grain, has lovely aromatic attrib- utes and very appealing texture when cooked. The Khush/Shepard rice has attracted support for non- proprietary development from the American rice milling industry and is garnering close scrutiny from respected rice growers in Texas and South Carolina. In terms of contemporary development, the new Khush/Shepard rice is a run away success. To give tribute to their new rice’s heritage, Dr. Shepard has chosen the name “Charleston Gold” for this new rice which will be released in 2009 by Dr. Shepard, Dr. Khush and Dr. McClung. These rice scientists are truly making history.

POST NOTE: An unexpected result of Dr. Shepard’s research in rice farming history reveals the heretofore-unrecognized possibility that our rice seed banks around the world today may contain diverse heirloom CGRs bred in the Carolinas con- tinuously during the half-century prior to our Civil War. To explore this, he asked Dr. Anna McClung for DNA marker analysis and authentication support beginning in 2004. Dr. Shepard and Dr. McClung are now engaged in a worldwide DNA database survey of seed bank rices that include CGR genetic profile. This research will be the subject of an article in a future CGRF newsletter.