The History of U.S. Rice Production - Part 1

The Carolina Connection

Rice has been an important crop in the economy and history of southwest Louisiana. Many people may not know, however, that the cultivation of rice in what is now the United States began in the Carolina colonies. The first recorded effort at rice cultivation was conducted by Dr. Henry Woodward of Charleston, S.C., in 1685. Dr. Woodward obtained the rice seed from Captain John Thurber, who had sailed his ship to Charleston from the island of Madagascar. The production of rice spread rapidly in this area, and by 1695, rice was being used for the payments of rents to the British Proprietors. In 1691, Peter Guerard was granted a colonial patent for the development of a pendulum engine to remove rice hulls. By 1700, South Carolina was exporting 400,000 pounds of rice annually.

At that time rice production depended on ponds and rainwater. Because labor was scarce in the region, Carolina planters began importing slave labor from Africa to plant and harvest rice. Because rice was being grown in many areas of Africa during these times, the Africans contributed their own methods of planting, hoeing, harvesting, threshing and polishing, which dramatically improved rice production capabilities. Production reached more than 1.5 million pounds by 1710 and more than 20 million pounds by 1720. The colony adopted a standard of weights and measurements for rice in 1714 that specified the size of the barrel used to ship rice, which is the origin of the barrel (162 lb) still used for measuring rice yields in southwest Louisiana today.

Rice cultivation and yields in the region greatly improved after 1750, when planters developed a system to use the tidal flow of coastal rivers to flood rice fields. The Atlantic Ocean tides, when rising, forced fresh water ahead of the seawater, which raised the fresh water level upriver. Around 1750, Mr. Mckewn Johnstone began devising a system of water gates that were forced open when the tides rose and closed as the tides receded. Using these gates as well as levees along the rivers, he was able to capture this fresh water and effectively use it to flood his rice production fields. Individual fields could be flooded and the water level adjusted independently of adjacent fields. This ingenious system opened thousands of new acres to rice production.

A second innovation that improved the industry was an improved, tidal-powered rice mill that was developed by Jonathan Lucas of Charleston in the late 1700s. He realized that the tidal water used to flood rice fields could also turn a waterwheel. Using the mortal and pestle milling approach, Lucas developed a water-driven milling system that could mill more than 100 barrels per day. Many such mills were constructed throughout the Carolinas and Georgia as well as in England, where they were used to mill rough rice imported from the colonies.

By the 1780s production in the region (South Carolina and Georgia) had reached 80,000,000 pounds. Then as today, about half of the annual rice production was exported and half was consumed in the United States.

Rice Moves to Louisiana

Several factors changed the face of U.S. rice production in the mid 1800s. The introduction of steam power allowed for steam-powered pumps, which assisted the development of rice production along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Water was pumped over levees into rice fields. Roller mills that had been first developed for use with wheat were adapted for use with rice. After 1850, a great deal of production developed along the Mississippi River, and New Orleans rapidly became the new center of rice milling and marketing activities. Events during this time – the Civil War, the end of slavery and the lack of available capital – caused serious problems for the U.S. rice industry between 1865 and 1880. Rice production along the East Coast declined rapidly. Most production during this period was on small areas along the Mississippi River, and these fields were often threatened by eroding levees and periodic floods.

Next month we will discuss the movement of rice production into the coastal prairies of southwest Louisiana. (Much of this history was obtained from Rice-Origin, History, Technology, and Production edited by Smith and Dilday).

Permission granted 03/22/06 by B. Leonards (LA Farm & Ranch Magazine) to republish article on
12/8/2006 2:45:21 AM
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