Written By Glenn Roberts, David S. Shields, & B. Merle Shepard
Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2012
Heirloom Rice Foodways, Farming, and Cultural Notes
Carolina Gold rice market farming created a unique set of foods that eventually evolved into a complete cuisine. Sweet potatoes, brassicas, oats, barley, buckwheat, benne, emmer, bread rye, wheats, maize, cowpeas, broad beans, etc. were involved at the height of 19th century science supported market farming in an elegant sequence of mixed crop rotation prior to industrialization. We have completely lost these combinations and rotations in modern times. These rice crop rotation crops formed the cuisine associated with our market farming and eventually attained stature in Europe and on our tables.
There is renewed interest in our rice cuisine, known today as the Carolina Rice Kitchen, and all of the plants and systems that once vaulted it onto the global stage. Dr. Shields is about to publish a definitive work on the plants and foods of our 19th century market farming. There has been explosive media interest in Carolina (including North and South) rice cuisine in the last 18 months since Dr. Shepard, Dr. Khush, and Dr. McClung released their new rice “Charleston Gold.”
We are witnessing our youth becoming aware of their own food legacies and we see them returning by the tens of thousands to their local tables nationally. This phenomenon is moving ahead with alacrity and is constant in homes, farmers markets, food kiosks, and restaurants. Everyone in the “older” generation in our major urban centers where these food systems are beginning to take hold economically, is adapting or being left behind. In the South, particularly the Virginia to Southern Georgia region, there is renewed global interest in our local food heritage beyond urban gardening and hobby cropping for the first time since the mid-nineteenth century. There are growing clusters of nascent heritage food farmers encircling our larger cities.
The latest Southern entry onto the world stage sourcing quality ingredients from this movement is Husk Restaurant in Charleston and Husk’s Chef Sean Brock. Brock is equally a farmer and a chef and has been featured in major media here, in Europe and in Asia more than any other American chef over the last year. Brock’s food philosophy, garnered from his time with Dr. Shields, marries local food history and Brock’s modern locale. Brock is reviving lost foods at a rapid clip. Husk restaurant is living the Carolina Rice Kitchen and they are booked solid 30 days in advance right now. Brock is unabashedly drawing Carolina Rice and its companion foods back into the Southern pantry while the world watches.
Orton should be a major presence in this grand movement toward sense of place and local identity. Simply, there is deep cultural meaning in repatriating North Carolina rice for the people of North Carolina. Our rices were always Carolina rices. They were the legacy of the Lowcountry without cultural borders.
Comment on Landrace Genetics and Farming
Most modern breeders are focusing upon nano and GMO seed improvement and many of our young geneticists are no longer working in the public realm. It would be folly to deny that we must address carrying capacity and the rising challenge to feed a growing global population. This is a given within our pursuits.
But we are aware of adaptive weaknesses in these modern systems. The CGRF set out at our inception to explore our mission scientifically and apply the results to modern rice agriculture systems. We know that landrace cereals regress in small populations and can exhibit more vigor and new traits in large populations. We are also aware that large cereal populations increase frequency of beneficial mutation and sporting in unintuitive ways. We know that there is little chance for this genetic expression in a seed bank replication plot, especially when the stated purpose of the plot is true type replication.
Our position on landrace farming is that we should all keep focused upon the mission to feed the world while leaving scientific and practical breathing room to support and study landrace plant systems that have been adapting to pest pressure and climate change in larger populations for centuries and many times millennia.
The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is following this mission to the letter. Dr. Shepard, Dr. Khush, and Dr. McClung cooperated, pro bono, to develop Charleston Gold Rice, an effort stretching nearly a decade and a half. Last year, 100 acres of commercial Charleston Gold Rice came to harvest. This year, over 300 acres of Charleston Gold rice will go in and interest is growing. We expect over 500 acres for 2013.
Landrace plant systems are based upon survival through vigor and flavor. Dr. Shepard, et al, have certainly imbued Charleston Gold Rice with the best flavor traits of Carolina Gold Rice while improving its vigor and field performance four fold.
One last comment. Drayton recorded over 100 varieties of landrace rices grown in the Carolinas by 1800. All of our efforts should be focused upon obtaining local landrace rice food security by diversifying beyond the two rices we have in production now.
Interpretation — Heirloom Rice Agriculture and Culture
The cultural interpretation of rice husbandry at Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place, and Brookgreen Gardens is impressive and enjoys international presence and respect. But none have working fields. Middleton Place stands alone in interpretation of Antebellum rice husbandry with a small plot of Carolina Gold rice below the butterfly ponds. The Middleton Place staff employs only authentic manual tillage with period implements, heel and toe manual planting, and manual harvest, threshing, pounding and winnowing... all with authentic implements. Middleton also engages authentic rice art and crafts, elite and common rice music and architecture within its interpretive programs. All of these historic plantation interpretive programs present and reflect upon the historic social justice issues and interpretive aspects of slavery as well.
But there are no scaled up interpretation fields of heirloom Carolina Gold Rice in America and no interpretation program focuses upon the importance of separate seed protocols in landrace rice husbandry. There is a growing awareness that the massive contributions and tribulations of slavery will not be embraced with respect to Antebellum rice production until a true vista of a working Antebellum rice field in scale can be part of our national experience. Orton Plantation, of all the Antebellum rice plantations, possesses this vista if her rice fields return to their original purpose, Carolina Gold Rice seed research and production. Orton’s facility and potential presence of scale are unmatched with respect to our surviving collection of Antebellum rice field landmarks.
Landrace Rice Seed — Demonstration of Need
The rapid increase of local food gardening and farming continues unabated across America. This movement is driving the establishment of mid-scale local and regional food hubs and is accelerating demand for local niche rices here in the South and elsewhere in America. In South Carolina and Georgia, these food hubs have lacked mid-scale cereal post-harvest handling and processing capabilities and there is no infra- structure for rice seed processing. In North Carolina, a similar deficit has impeded local cereal production. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation helped develop a mid-scale heirloom rice seed cleaning, processing, and storage facility located in central South Carolina beginning in 2010.This facility is now operational.
We’re not aware that there is a local fully equipped facility for heirloom rice seed or production processing in North Carolina or Georgia at this time. There is a color sorter in the 2013 budget of the central South Carolina seed facility which will bring it fully online for quality seed (a dedicated color sorter is essential for rice seed quality and weedy rice prevention management, especially in landrace rice seed systems).
Regarding landrace rice seed production: There is no certified foundation rice seed production facility in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia at this time, even though we have access to sufficient breeder seed stock to support at least one now. We envision the need for mid-scale certified foundation rice seed and rice production, processing and storage facilities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia by 2015 based upon current growth rates and the unpredictability of rice seed supply in the United States.
Orton Plantation is strategically and geographically situated to maximize rice seed and production security (if it is in production) against catastrophic loss due to storms in South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. This was Orton Plantation’s strategic role during the first half of the 19th century as well. Without Orton, we cannot achieve rice seed and production continuity in our region in the future.
Landrace Rice Seed Market — Demonstration of Need
The growth of acreage planted to Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold production rice is about 10 percent per year over the last four years as the market for heirloom niche rices accelerates nationally. Landrace (heirloom) Carolina Gold Rice seed and Charleston Gold Rice seed, produced in head row, breeder, and certified foundation protocols has been produced only in one facility in the USA, the Texas Rice Improvement Association in Beaumont, Texas.
As of January this year, head row and breeder Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold Rice seed stock will be grown out at Dale Bumpers Institute in Stuttgart, Ark., only. TRIA will continue to produce certified foundation seed from DPI breeder. The CGRF asked TRIA to produce 300 cwt each of 2011 Certified Foundation Carolina Gold Rice seed and Charleston Gold Rice seed to serve niche landrace rice growers in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Texas. The CGRF produces an additional 300 cwt VNS rice seed per year to assist in seed availability and act as reserve against catastrophic loss.
The niche rice market is growing rapidly and this season, record acreage of Carolina Gold Rice and Charleston Gold Rice will be planted in the aforementioned Southern states. These acreages are split evenly between conventional and organic rice production management. TRIA will reach their maximum security allocation for Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold certified foundation seed production in 2014. We estimate this at 500/cwt for each rice. The CGRF has capability of producing another 500 cwt VNS as a backup. Although we may have additional VNS capability for these rices, we will need additional sources for certified foundation heirloom rice seed thereafter.
This overview does not account for our new variety research programs for Carolina Long Rice, a black Tribute rice and the Italian cultivar associated with first rices at Caw Caw wilderness south of Charlestowne by Italian growers in the late 1600s, tall straw Italian heirloom rices including Vialone Nano.
Having only one certified foundation seed production facility for the growing number of Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold rice farmers in the South is an increasing security risk. A hurricane in Beaumont could easily wipe out a year’s seed production. Weather completely wiped out our seed crops at TRIA once in the last decade and took down half of our seed crop two years ago.
The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is funding the establishment of 50 acres of seed protocol fields off the Savannah River fed by well system and protected from coastal storm systems to a fair degree.
We need Orton rice seed production for strategic security against catastrophic loss as a landrace seed facility at the very least. We also project demand for local rice in North Carolina will grow vertically, once available. We advocate for the restoration of Orton Plantation’s full array of fields for rice seed production and, especially, Orton’s larger fields because they can be deployed for scale-up field trials to be able to assess genetic stability in landrace rice seed.