New Rice Rising

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

By Frank Hyman


An experiment in growing rice.Many people told the Oatises that rice couldn’t be grown in the upland, clay soils of North Carolina’s piedmont region. Historically, rice in the American South was grown near rivers so growers could flood the rice fields with river water both to irrigate the crop and to drown the weeds; water becomes an organic weed-killer in rice paddies. But after reading about Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s success growing rice flooded by occasional rains rather than reliable rivers in his book The One-Straw Revolution, they believed they could do it, too.

An internet and catalog search turned up no rice seed options until they found ‘Koshihikari’, a Japanese rice variety sold by Kitazawa Seed Co. Developed in the 1950s, this semidwarf, early-maturing variety of short-grain rice commands top prices in Japan. To corner the market, Japanese growers tried unsuccessfully to keep seed of the variety from being sold outside the country. It is frequently used for sushi and also makes a good risotto.

The theme of The One-Straw Revolution is about working with nature, rather than fighting it. Jason and Haruka embraced Fukuoka’s notion of farming as a spiritual practice. They also gained practical ideas from the book, like coating rice in wet clay so birds wouldn’t eat the seeds when they broadcast them in May. And from Hmong farmers from Laos who had settled in a nearby county, they learned how to harvest rice kernels by hand in September.

With grant money from Rural Farm Advancement International, a group that aids small farmers using money from the tobacco settlement, they bought a Japanese-made rice-hulling machine a bit bigger than an old desktop computer. Jason hopes that soon there will be enough local rice growers that they can share equipment like the rice huller, which removes the inedible outer sheath. He knows of only two other farmers in North Carolina who follow the same approach to growing rice.