Rice Cultivation on a Small Farm

In the right climate, rice cultivation on a small farm is sufficiently productive—even for an amateur farmer—to feed a family.

| May/June 1979

Reprinted with permission from Natural History August/September 1978. copyright© 1978 by the American Museum of Natural History.  

Rice is the main food for half the world's population. There are thousands of varieties of rice. All are crops of warm climates and only a few new types produce well where the mean temperature is 70°F (or higher) for less than four months of the year.

In the United States, rice cultivation began in South Carolina in 1694, but almost all of our rice is now grown in limited regions of Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The nutritive value of milled rice is about that of potatoes. In the rough, or unhulled, form at everyday temperatures, rice can keep for several years, much longer than raw potatoes.

Yields around the world vary widely, from only 1,000 pounds per acre on unfertilized plots dependent on fluctuating rainfall to more than 6,000 pounds per acre where plant variety is matched to optimum conditions of soil, water, and temperature. United States production in 1976 was nearly 13 billion pounds from 2.8 million acres, for an average yield of 4,600 pounds per acre. More than half of our production is exported. Major customers include South Korea, South Africa, the Arab countries of the Mideast, and some western European nations.

In the United States, commercial production is energy intensive and usually employs chemical aids. Rice seed is either sown by airplane in flooded fields or planted with grain drills in fields drained for planting and subsequently flooded. Weed-control herbicides such as 2,4-D are commonly applied by airplane.

Fields are drained again before harvest and allowed to dry sufficiently for combines to be used. Rice is hulled in centrally located mills. The largest process as much as a billion pounds in a year. Milling nowadays is often preceded by special processing, which first places rough rice under vacuum to remove air from the hull and kernel, then steams it under high pressure. This practice, akin to parboiling, drives some vitamins and minerals from the rice hull into the kernel, producing a more nutritious, longer-lasting final product. Milled rice is often further enriched with vitamins and minerals before being packaged for distribution to markets.

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