The History of U.S. Rice Production - Part 2

Steven Linscombe  |  12/7/2006 1:13:37 AM

Even with the use of tractors to provide power and mechanical threshers, removing the rough rice from the plants was still a labor-intensive process in early Louisiana rice production.

The establishment of large-scale irrigation projects was an important component in the development of the Louisiana rice industry. This is the pumping station for one such system.

Rice Moves into Southwest Louisiana -

U.S rice production declined in the years following the Civil War. Production in the traditional region of South Carolina and Georgia was negatively affected by the end of slavery as well as the lack of available capital. In Louisiana, the already limited production along the Mississippi was hurt by eroding levees and flood devastation. In fact, U.S. rice production may have come to an end had it not been for a number of circumstances at the end of the nineteenth century. These included (1) the completion of the railroad system from New Orleans westward through south Louisiana and Texas, (2) the availability of cheap land and abundant water in the prairies of southwest Louisiana, and (3) the development of steam-powered farm implements.

The railroad was completed from New Orleans westward in about 1883. This facilitated the sale of the abundant prairie land in southwest Louisiana. Railroad agents came to the region from the grain-producing region in the American Midwest to develop and sell this land for agricultural production. The first prospective farmers came primarily from the Midwestern states of Iowa, Illinois and Kansas. Land could be purchased for as little as 12 cents per acre, and $14 down would initiate the sale of 160 acres. Grain farmers from the Midwest came in large numbers and brought with them their steam engines, steam tractors, mechanical harvesters, and knowledge and expertise in mechanized farming. They soon discovered that corn and wheat did not prosper in the coastal prairies but rice certainly did. Many farmers later came to the region directly from Europe, with a large portion from Germany.

The wheat twine binder was successfully adapted to rice harvesting by Maurice Brien in 1884. Railroad shipping records indicate that one twine binder was shipped to Louisiana in 1884, 200 in 1887, and more than 1,000 in 1890. Steam tractors and threshers became common in the region, and in 1888, William Deering and Company began to manufacture a harvester designed especially for rice. It became evident, however, that the capital improvements and technology required for rice production greatly exceeded those required for grain production in the Midwest.

Mr. Seaman A. Knapp left the presidency of Iowa State College to move to the region as a farm specialist. He promoted experimental farms, brought improved rice varieties and conducted a number of other activities that benefited the establishment and success of early rice production in the region. Mr. Knapp spent a great deal of his time educating producers on the newest technologies and varieties. He is given much credit for the establishment of the Cooperative Extension Service that now exists throughout the U.S. and is part of the LSU AgCenter in Louisiana.

It is estimated that by 1895, there were almost 300,000 acres in rice production in the U.S., most of which was in Louisiana. Rice production also spread rapidly into southeast Texas during this period. By 1903, Louisiana had more than 375,000 acres and Texas had more than 230,000 acres in production. Other important developments in Louisiana rice production during this period included establishment of large-scale canal and irrigation systems. Canal and land development companies built large canal systems that ran for many miles. These systems typically pumped water from bayous or rivers using large steam-engine-driven pumps. The water was delivered to adjacent fields along the length of the canals and offered rice farmers a dependable supply of fresh water. The canal company in turn received a share of the crop in exchange for the irrigation water.

During the early days of rice production in the region, most of the rice was shipped to the established milling industry in New Orleans. By the turn of the century, however, prairie rice farmers began building private and cooperative mills in the production area of southwest Louisiana. The first part of the 20th century also brought improved varieties. A number of new rice varieties were introduced from other countries, and several new varieties were introduced from Japan. Mr. Solomon Wright, a Midwesterner who relocated to Crowley, developed the Blue Rose variety that was the standard of the industry for many years.

Also in 1909, the Rice Experiment Station was established on a tract of land west of Crowley. The rice station came to be because of a cooperative endeavor between the LSU Agricultural Experiment Station, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local rice farmers. The station was originally established with the primary mission of introducing and later developing improved rice varieties. This has remained an important objective, and through the years other important research areas were added to the mission of the current LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station.

The development of the rice industry was the foundation for the settlement and development of the coastal prairie region of Southwest Louisiana and remains an important economic engine for this region.

(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

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