Digging into US rice – where did it come from?

Digging into US rice – where did it come from?

Discussions with a friend challenged my understanding of some aspects of US rice production. I had focused on California rice for most of my earlier research and really, if the truth is to be known, discounted most of the rest of the country. My understandings were not all wrong but some generalizations where flat out incorrect and this led to other beliefs being wrong as well.

Most of the rice grown in California is medium grain while most of the rest of the country grows predominantly long grain rice. This fact led to my incorrect conclusion that most of the country grows Indica rice; NOT TRUE. As it turns out very little of the rice grown in the US is actually Indica rice. So, what is all this long grain rice that is being grown? It is tropical Japonica; sometimes known as Javanica. I prefer to use Javanica but this term is becoming less and less common. Anyway, tropical Japonica comes in both long and medium grain forms.

So, while being wrong about most states growing Indica, it is true that there is a distinct difference between the rice grown in most rice producing states and California. Most rice grown in California is Japonica while most rice grown in the other major rice producing states is tropical Japonica; a distinctly different rice. Even the medium grain rice grown in these states tends to be tropical Japonica.

Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas are the rice producing states. Of the rice grown in these states in 2008 75.2% was long grain rice, 23.2 percent was medium grain rice with the remaining 1.6% being short grain rice. A finer break down of the production is given in the following chart as my estimate of 2008 distribution.

Estimated US Rice distribution by type produced

But how did US rice production get to this point? The first recorded rice came into the US in Charleston, South Carolina in or before 1686. This long grain rice seed was on a ship that had picked it up in Madagascar. Within 23 years, Charleston had become wealthy in large part because of the rice trade. The rice that was introduced from Madagascar became known as Carolina White. Shortly after this Carolina Gold came onto the scene; most likely a selection from Carolina White but we do not know for sure. Little change occurred for US rice for the next 200 years.

South Carolina and Georgia produced more than 90% of the rice produced in the US by 1850.  In 1858, rice imported to Hawaii from China was planted but did not do well. Shortly after, in 1860 Dr. Seth Ford imported rice seed from Carolina to Hawaii. This started an explosion of growth which resulted in exports of rice to California. In 1862, 324,000 pounds of  milled and paddy rice were exported from Hawaii to California. The paddy rice was milled in San Francisco.  By 1899 the kingdom of Hawaii came in just behind Louisiana and South Carolina for rice production.

By 1890, rice production in South Carolina and Georgia had ceased. The next documented rice introduction occurred with Honduras, a long grain rice. Neither Carolina Gold nor Honduras had good milling qualities with breakage levels of 40% to 60%.  Resulting returns were much lower than they should be because of the high degree of breakage during milling. This set the stage for a more suitable rice to be introduced.

Seaman A. Knapp, commissioned by a newly formed arm of the government, traveled to Japan in 1898 to locate more suitable rice for Louisiana. By this time the Atlantic coast was no longer producing significant amounts of rice. Knapp returned with a Japanese rice, Kiushu, he felt would be best suited for Louisiana. Tested in the 1899 season, Kiushu proved to be vastly superior to both Carolina Gold and Honduras in reducing breakage loss, breakage dropped to between 14% to 18%, and increased overall yields by more than 25%.

As a result, several hundred tons of Kiushu seed were imported enabling Kiushu to become Louisiana’s leading variety. Kiushu also spread to Texas. In fact Louisiana and Texas had more than half their acreage of rice planted with Kiushu by 1907. Knapp made a second, more extensive trip and brought back many more varieties, including Chinriki and Wataribune, to be tested. These varieties were very important in taking Louisiana and Texas from producing 100,000,000 pounds of rice in 1896 to over 687,000,000 pounds in 1911, more than a 6 fold increase.

The earliest report of rice seed being brought to California that I have found was in 1870 when a group fled Japan planning to start a new life. They brought with them plants and seeds for tea, rice, bamboo, mulberry trees and silk worm cocoons. They did well for the first two years but then ran into trouble.

Reportedly, others were also trying to grow rice in California around 1870 but were not finding much commercial success. I cannot reconcile this last statement with the above mentioned mill in San Francisco in 1868. Nor with statements that Hawaii was importing short grain rice from California because the Japanese coming to the islands1 preferred the short grain rice to Hawaii’s long grain variety that had come from Carolina.

Long grain varieties were tested on Onion Island in the San Joaquin River near Stockton in the early 1890s but with no success. Then, in 1906, in the San Joaquin Valley, William W. Mackie was experimenting with a short-grain Japanese cultivar brought in from Hawaii. Finding success, Mackie went to Louisiana and Texas to learn more about rice culture. In 1908 Mackie was able to arrange another trial with short grain rice. This time he used Kiushu that he obtained from Crowley, Louisiana and in a second attempt found success with a yield of 3000 pounds per acre.

Crowley, Louisiana in 1905 took over the work Knapp had been doing. This work had started near Manchester, Louisiana and then moved to a farm near North Galveston, Texas before finding its final rest at Crowley.  The Kiushu and Chinriki rice varieties were the best available varieties until Salmon Lusk “Sol” Wright introduced his Blue Rose in 1907 and Early Prolific soon after. Wright developed Blue Rose in an attempt to control red rice which devalued the rice crop. He strongly believed that a domestic variety needed to be bred. By 1934 close to 75% of the rice grown in the US were varieties developed by Wright.

The original stock from which Blue Rose and Early Prolific were derived is unclear to me. Both are tropical Japonica medium grain while the varieties Knapp brought from Japan are temperate Japonica. So, to me, it does not seem like they would have been derived from the Japanese lines. Both Carolina Gold and Honduras are tropical Japonica.  Well, most likely there is some complex mix of these.

In 1913Coloro was selected from Early Wataribune and became the one of the two major short grain varieties grown in California until the 1970s. The other was Colusa which was a selection from Chinese. Both of these are temperate japonica.

By 1941 Louisiana had nine principal kinds of rice. They included: Blue Rose, Early Prolific, Fortuna, Rexora, Lady Wright, Edith, Nira, Japanese, and Shoemed. Lady Wright was crossed with Coloro to produce Calady and then Calady was crossed with Coloro to produce Calrose which was released in 1948 and became the standard for California medium grain rice.

From here the story gets more complex, in that, there are many cultivars being created and vying for production. For this reason and the fact that this was going to be a short and quick post but has turned into something quite different I will close here.

  1. The US passed in 1882 the Chinese exclusion act of which the Kingdom of Hawaii followed a similar path which resulted in changeover of Japanese workers replacing Chinese. By 1890 Japanese held more than 42% of Hawaiian plantation work and amounted to 1/7th of Hawaii’s population.
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