Growing Rice

Growing rice isn’t difficult; milling it is.

by Dani Yokhna
rice field in Italy

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Believe it or not, rice fields, such as this one, are all over Italy.

I went to work as a experimental data collector in the rice fields in Northern California when I was in college, and I also knew a lot of Mennonite rice farmers near Chico, Calif. Later, I had a friend who worked for the USA Rice Council and helped market rice grown in California. I was a bit disillusioned when I learned that Arkansas actually grows more rice than California.

When I moved to Italy, I finally learned the meaning of “a lot of rice fields.” The entire area around Milan, Italy, the huge Po Valley, is covered with rice fields. In late spring, flying into Milan gives passengers the impression that it is an island in the middle of a huge lake, because when the fields are all flooded, there is little solid ground left visible for many miles around the metropolis. No wonder that the most famous culinary delights from the area are rice dishes like Risotto Milanese. I have several friends who grow specialty rice varieties that are shipped up to the German market, and I’m now an enthusiastic fan of Italian rice.

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Growing rice isn’t too difficult. The classic method of rice cultivation calls for flooding the fields once the young plants have been planted. The flooding is mainly to protect the young plants from pests like snails, soil insects and rodents. The flooding also has the effect of encouraging straight vertical growth in the young plants. Once the plants are past the early adolescent stage, the flooding is no longer required and the plants resist snails, rodents and insects fairly well. Most of the rice grown in the developed Western world is grown by large, commercial operations. In Asia, small rice farms are more common, and the smaller farms grow what is termed paddy rice. Any small farmers in the United States who wanted to start trying their hand at growing paddy rice could expect to arrive at the point where they could grow 100 pounds of rice in about 400 square feet of paddy.

Growing rice is the easy part; drying and milling a big bunch of rice grains is much more difficult. Essentially, none of the 150 commercial rice mills in the U.S. are set up to accept small lots of paddy rice for processing. There are some small mill systems that small farmers can buy but, at the moment, there are so few small farms producing rice that even putting together a cooperative to buy a piece of communal equipment would be difficult. It is, of course, possible to hull rice by beating it physically with a big piece of wood. This is the method used by rice farmers with less money, all over the world. In post-harvest as in most other phases, paddy rice is a labor-intensive crop.

Milling is an important phase to control because, although most commercially grown rice is milled and polished into white rice, that process reduces the weight and nutrition of the crop significantly. Milling or pounding rice into rough, brown rice form provides the farmer with a heavier and much more nutritious crop.

Read more of Rick’s Favorite Crops »

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