Rice Cultivation on a Small Farm

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The author's rice cultivation efforts were a success despite having a small farm. 
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Highly productive rice stalks.  

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.

Civilizations tend to be only as strong and enduring as
their agricultural bases. It is accordingly an
understatement to say that we should be concerned with what
is going on in U.S. agriculture. Commercial rice culture in
the United States illustrates many features of our total
agricultural system. It involves extensive use of fossil
fuels to power machinery, to fertilize, and to control
insect and plant pests. Most of us are better fed than
former populations. But our technological agriculture has
also introduced harmful synthetics into the environment and
replaced crop rotation with chemicals, resulting in the
loss of humus and increased erosion of sloping lands.

Our systems for the preservation and widespread
distribution of agricultural products have given us
year-round access to many heretofore seasonal foods but
some of us miss the flavor of fresh, naturally ripened
produce, which is seldom available nowadays.

Energy intensive farming in the United States has been
associated with social changes. There are fewer farmhands
in the nation now and more unemployed workers in the
cities. Since our agricultural methods rest significantly
on the depletion of nonrenewable resources, they resemble
some other features of our socioeconomic structure in that
they probably cannot be sustained over the long term.

My maternal grandfather was a farmer and rancher in south
Texas, so I was exposed to commercial agriculture as a
youngster during the early 1940’s: After 10 years of adult
life in Norman, Oklahoma (population about
60,000)–and with our two sons out of high
school–my wife Lottie and I agreed that we should
try living on a farm.

Our 220-acre farm is mostly pasture. The original part of
our house was built by a family of Choctaw Indian descent,
which claimed 80 acres when the Indian lands in Oklahoma
were allocated to individuals at the start of this century.
I use a lot of old, but still functional, farm equipment
that is not in great demand by full-time farmers. Most of
it was purchased for about 15 percent of the cost of new
equipment. Our farm income, which is derived principally
from honey sold to health food stores, amounts to less than
$1,000 per year. Consequently, my agricultural
experiments depend for their support on my
income as a meteorologist.

We have some cows and calves, plus chickens and ducks, a
productive apiary, a fine garden, a developing orchard, and
a lovely creek. Some of the numerous wild animals share our
produce, but they, in turn, are kept in check or at bay by
our dogs and cats and by various ad hoc strategies. There
is plenty of work, but we get some important help from a
friendly neighbor. We take much pleasure in our animals and
get much satisfaction from farm life. And we are learning.

For example, after three seasons of experimentation, I have
developed a system of rice cultivation that produces a good
yield with very little labor and no commercial fertilizers,
pesticides, or herbicides. My paddy is a 734-square-foot
oblong plot in which water normally stands after heavy
rains, making it unsuitable for common garden crops. The
topsoil is a dark loam, underlain by a slightly pervious
clay. An irrigation system provides water from Finn Creek,
made perennial by an upstream water-retention and
flood-control project built in 1965 by the Soil
Conservation Service.

In late winter or early spring I spread about 200 pounds of
old cow manure on the paddy and plow it into the soil with
the residue from the previous rice crop. For uniform
distribution of water to the new crop, I level the paddy
with a rake, boards, and a level indicator. Planting
sprouts instead of ungerminated seed gives the rice a start
over ungerminated weed seeds. So I place wet rough rice
from the previous crop in a covered can on top of a
hot-water heater. The seed sprouts very rapidly and is
ready to plant in a few days. About two pounds of seed
corresponds to the usual planting rate of a little more
than one hundred pounds per acre. I use a rototiller just
before planting. This eliminates started weeds and
provides an appropriate seedbed. The slightly sprouted rice
is broadcast carefully by hand, raked gently to hide it
from birds, and then watered to provide a shallow cover.
Planting time in central Oklahoma is from May 1 to May 10.

I have heard that the planting of germinated seed is
practiced in the Philippines, but the traditional Oriental
method of rice growing involves cultivating the seedlings
in separate beds and then transplanting them. With the
transplanting method, two or sometimes three crops a year
can be grown in the same rice paddy if the climate is
suitably warm. Transplanting established plants gives the
rice a strong advantage over weeds, which then grow only
poorly in the shade of the larger rice plants.

The airplane method of seeding is very fast, of course, but
probably not adapted to the use of tender sprouted seed. In
most commercial practice, the rapid natural ascendancy of
sprouted or transplanted rice over weeds, coupled with some
manual labor for residual weed control, is traded for weed
control by chemical methods. The planting of germinated
seed is probably a good method for small-scale farming in
the United States, since in most of the country the warm
season is not long enough for two rice crops and weeds can
be particularly troublesome when the germination of
unsprouted rice seed is delayed by cool weather.

Rice is a beautiful plant and grows rapidly during
Oklahoma’s typically hot July and August. In 1977, my paddy
required only one major weeding, which I did in about two
hours with feet kept bare so the rice plants could be felt
and not trampled. A major weed is barnyard grass, which
resembles rice until the seed stalks appear, but which is a
slightly darker green, has a diminutive or absent
ligule–instead of the conspicuous pubescent ligule of
rice–and stems that are reddish at the base, while
those of rice are nearly white. A broad-leaved aquatic weed
with shallow roots is also common in my paddy, but it is
easily pulled up and eaten by our ducks. During midsummer,
the water surface shows tints of blue, indicative of
nitrogen-fixing, blue-green algae. The paddy is not a
significant source of mosquitoes, which are
apparently controlled by the numerous frogs attracted
during the summer growing season.

I harvest the rice when the kernels show the first signs of
falling from their panicles, about September 20 in
Oklahoma. My harvest date has been insensitive to the
planting date, depending instead on the variety of rice
used. Birds are not a serious pest unless the rice stalks
are blown down, or lodged, by a severe storm; the stalk
is not stiff enough to give even small birds a good perch.

I harvest the rice by hand in about an hour by successively
gathering together all the stalks I can embrace and cutting
them off with a knife. After the harvested stalks have
dried for a few weeks in a large wooden tray in the barn, I
remove more than 95 percent of the grain in about 15
minutes. This is done by striking the mass of stalks with
the flat of an ordinary pitchfork. The grain falls to the
bottom of the tray, and the stalks with unthreshed grain
are worked over by eager chickens.

The unpalatable rice hulls cling closely and tenaciously to
the kernels. Hulling consequently represents a major
obstacle for the small rice grower. The Oriental pounding
and rubbing methods involving a hollowed-out log seem
ill-adapted to our ways, although not having guidance in
such arts, I have probably not given them a fair trial.
Another technique–small, electrically powered rice hullers
used for testing grain sampled from commercial lots–seems
expensive for the small farmer (huller prices started at
about $600 in 1976). In my first hulling method I used a
tray lined with carborundum paper and rubbed the rice with
a similarly coated wooden block, but this procedure is
painfully slow and produces some undesirable grit.

In 1976 I purchased, for $143 delivered, a Java
hand-operated huller manufactured in England (John Gordon
& Sons, Ltd.). This small, sturdy machine, which should last for
decades, yields 5 to 10 pounds of milled rice per hour in
an easygoing operation by one person, including simple
winnowing of the outturn mixture of kernels and separated
hulls. The final product–brown rice, since only the outer
husk is removed from most kernels–cooks in 20 minutes. The
amount to be eaten in a month is all that should be milled
at one time because brown rice is vulnerable to attack by
insects and its oil can become rancid (of course, these
risks are minor if the rice is refrigerated).

My paddy, although poorly leveled in 1977 owing to an
error, provided 55 pounds of rough rice after threshing or about 3,200 pounds per
acre. Approximately two-thirds of my total came from the
half paddy that was better watered, so I anticipate a yield
of 70 to 75 pounds with better leveling. But even 55 pounds
is more than adequate for a family of four, since the
annual per capita consumption in the United States is only
7 1/2 pounds of milled rice, derived from approximately 11
pounds of rough rice.

Some additional notes. My rice is Nova 66. I judge that
given suitable land and sufficient water of good quality,
the manual method of planting rice sprouts is practical for
a small farm family cultivating up to an acre of paddy.
This carries implications of a significant financial return
on labor, since the current retail price of rice in health
food stores is more than 50¢ per pound.

If an acre is planted, a small combine would be an
appropriate aid, and the Java huller would need a simple
conversion to belt drive to mill about 30 pounds of rice
per hour. Deep water is not necessary on rice plants,
although depths of six inches provide strong control of
weeds. But a minimum water depth of an inch or two is
required to keep the paddy continuously wet until the rice
kernels are well filled out. I watered for 40 minutes every
second or third day during the hot, dry summer of 1977 and
estimate that less than $1.50 was spent on electricity for
my one-horsepower pump throughout the season.

Overfertilizing will result in lush vegetative growth and
lodging of the stalks. I now apply cow manure once before
planting and leave the rest to the algae. The U.S.
Department of Agriculture and other agencies provide
instructions for achieving maximum yields by fertilizing
during midseason. The benefits of commercial processing can
be approached by parboiling rough rice and re-drying before
hulling. This practice is common in many of the
less-developed countries where rice is grown in small plots
for local use.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Edwin Kessler, a meteorologist, is the
director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory located in Norman, Oklahoma.