History of rice in the USA
Rice farming was introduced to the United States in the 17th century. It is mentioned to have been under cultivation in the state of Virginia as far back as 1609, although it is reported that one bushel of rice had been sent to the colony later, in the summer of 1671, on the cargo vessel William and Ralph. In 1685, a bag of Madagascar rice known as “Gold Seede” was given to Dr. Woodward a tax law of 26 September 1691 had permitted payment of taxes by the colonists by way of rice and other commodities.
The colonial South Carolina and Georgia prospered and amassed great wealth from the slave labor obtained from the Senegambia area of West Africa and from coastal Sierra Leone. One batch of slaves was advertised as “a choice cargo of Windward and Gold Coast Negroes, who have been accustomed to the planting of rice”. At the port of Charleston, through which 40% of all American slave imports passed, slaves from Africa brought the highest prices in recognition of their prior knowledge of rice culture, which was put to use on the many rice plantations around Georgetown, Charleston, and Savannah.
From the enslaved Africans, plantation owners learned how to dyke the marshes and periodically flood the fields. At first rice was milled by hand with wooden paddles, and then winnowed in sweet grass baskets (the making of which was another skill brought by slaves from Africa). The invention of the rice mill increased profitability of the crop, and the addition of water power for the mills in 1787 by American millwright Jonathan Lucas was another step forward.
In the country’s early years, rice production was limited to the South Atlantic and Gulf states. For almost the first 190 years of rice production in the US, the principal producers were South Carolina and Georgia. Limited amounts were grown in the states of North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Rice was introduced into the southern states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and east Texas in the mid-19th century. In 1839, the total production was 80,841,422 pounds, of which 60,590,861 pounds were grown in South Carolina and 12,384,732 pounds in Georgia. In 1849, cultivation reached 215,313,497 pounds. Between 1846 and 1861, annual rice production in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia averaged more than 105 million pounds of cleaned rice, with South Carolina producing more than 75 percent.
A Civil War era rice barn on a plantation along the Pee Dee River.
At the census of 1870, the production of rice decreased to 73,635,021 pounds. In 1879, the total area devoted to rice was 174,173 acres, and the total production of clean rice was 110,131,373 pounds. A decade later, the total area devoted to rice cultivation was 161,312 acres, and the total production of clean rice equaled 128,590,934 pounds; this represented a 16.76 percent increase in the amount produced, with a decrease of 7.38 percent in the area under cultivation. Between 1890 and 1900, Louisiana and Texas increased rice crop acreage to such an extent that they produced almost 75 percent of the country’s product. Between 1866 and 1880, the annual production of the three States averaged just under 41 million pounds, of which South Carolina produced more than 50 percent. After 1880, their average annual production approximated 46 million pounds of cleaned rice, of which North Carolina produced 5.5 million, South Carolina 27 million and Georgia 13.5 million pounds.
The rice industry in Louisiana began around the time of the Civil War. For a number of years, production was small, but during the 1870s the industry began to assume large proportions, averaging nearly 30 million pounds for the decade and exceeding 51 million pounds in 1880. In 1885, the production reached 100 million pounds, and in 1892, 182 million pounds. The great development of the rice industry in Louisiana after 1884 resulted from the opening up of a prairie region in the southwestern part of the state, and the development of a system of irrigation and culture which made possible the use of harvesting machinery similar to that used in the wheat fields of the Northwest, greatly reducing the costs of production. In 1896, yield from the Louisiana rice fields, where harvesting machinery was used, was good. However the milling process was not successful commercially in some rice varieties. The loss due to the milling process was considerable, particularly of the unbroken rice.
20th century to present
Hauling rice in South Texas, 1909
Rice was established in Arkansas in 1904, California in 1912, and the Mississippi Delta in 1942. Rice cultivation in California in particular started during the California Gold Rush. It was introduced primarily for the consumption of about 40,000 Chinese laborers who were brought as immigrants to the state; only a small area was under rice cultivation to meet this requirement. However, commercial production began only in 1912 in the town of Richvale in Butte County. Since then, California has cultivated rice in a big way, and as of 2006, its production of rice was the second largest in the United States of America.