New Rice Rising

A soggy spot of ground prompts an experiment in rice farming.

By Frank Hyman

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An experiment in growing rice.On the first day that organic farmers Jason and Haruka Oatis had enough of their locally grown ‘Koshihikari’ rice to sell in 2010, a line of customers formed 15 minutes before their farm stand opened. “It was like they were camping out to be the first to get tickets to a ball game,” says Jason, who is lean and speaks with thoughtful intensity. The couple sold nearly 100 pounds of rice that day at their Edible Earthscapes farm stand near Moncure, North Carolina, at $16 a pound.

Jason and Haruka had set the rice’s price by asking guests at a potluck dinner to be their homegrown focus group. The guests, ranging from professors to farm laborers, filled out secret ballots to indicate how much they would be willing to pay for the rice they had just sampled. Jason averaged the results to come up with the $16 price. Guests left the dinner telling the Oatises that the rice was the best they’d ever eaten

“We are really blessed to live in an area where people are enthusiastic about their food,” says Haruka, who has a ready smile and a shock of dark hair. “We’ve had inquiries about getting the rice hulls to make pillows, mattresses, and fertilizer. There were a couple chefs who wanted rice to make sake.

Jason and Haruka met in 1996 at an English language school in Yokohama, Japan. They moved to the Japanese countryside to run their own school in 2001. Jason says that gardening together there for 7 years made them more aware of the food they ate. “I wanted to step out of the consumer role that is pushed on us and play an active role as a producer,” Haruka says. So they moved to North Carolina to become farmers. They began working on land set aside by Piedmont Biofuels as an organic farm incubator, later buying their own land nearby. A spot of ground at the bottom of a slope on their property stayed too wet for growing vegetables, so Haruka said, “Let’s grow rice.”

Growing rice organically requires a greater degree of farming skill than conventional growing, because there are fewer options for fertilizing and pest management, says Fugen Dou, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Beaumont. He notes that the acreage in conventional rice has fallen due to recent water shortages in Texas and price competition from imports. But the land devoted to organic rice nationally is at 50,000 acres and rising. Dou, who has begun a $1 million, 3-year study of organic rice growing, says that “demand for organic rice keeps increasing and production is unable to meet demand, even with imports of organic rice from Asian countries.”

Photos: Kyle Pearce

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