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Rice is a staple grain for over half of the world’s population, and arguably the single most important food crop produced in the world.
For many, rice cultivation exclusively conjures up images of verdant, watery hills in central China. But in fact, rice is a heavy hitting cereal grain in U.S. agriculture as well, especially in the Mississippi River Delta, and grows in a variety of landscapes. Given strong global demand and the U.S.’s importance in export markets, rice is a key crop for many American farmers.
- Intro to Rice
- Major Rice Growing Regions
- Major Rice Varieties
- Rice Lifecycle
- Rice Market Size And Price
- Rice Uses And End Markets
- Final Thoughts
Intro to Rice
Rice is a relative newcomer to commercial production in the U.S. Rice was brought to the U.S. along with enslaved people in the 17th century, with plantations in South Carolina and Georgia relying on that forced labor to grow the southern economy.
Today, the U.S. grows approximately 20 billion pounds of rice for domestic use and importation across the globe.
Major Rice Growing Regions
Rice is grown in the U.S., with four regions producing 100% of the commercial crop:
- Sacramento Valley in California
- Mississippi Delta (including parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana)
- Gulf Coast (Texas and Southwest Louisiana)
These areas have similar climates that rice requires:
- High daytime average temperatures
- Plenty of moisture via irrigation and humidity
- A lengthy growing season
Rice often flourishes in heavier soils, such as those with significant amounts of clay. While slower drainage is antithetical to many commercial crops, it’s critical for rice. Rice cultivation requires that rice fields are flooded or frequently irrigated, and the soil below the rice fields needs to keep that water in place.
Major Rice Varieties
Rice crops are divided into three major categories:
- Long grain: Long and slender; grains are dry and separate with cooking
- Medium grain: Not quite as long but not round; is sticky and clingy when cooked
- Short grain: Short and plump; clumps together
Long-grain grain rice makes up the bulk of U.S. rice farming (75%), with medium-grain rice at a distant second (24%) and short-grain making up the scant remainder.
Rice can further be classified by how it’s processed:
- Rough rice: This is completely unmilled and not suited for human consumption.
- Whole grain rice: The hull is removed but the rest of the grain is intact.
- White rice: The outer husk, bran layers, and germ have been removed.
How is rice grown and harvested? In the U.S., the rice lifecycle follows a predictable schedule.
Preparation and Planting
From February to early May, rice farmers prepare their land in preparation for seeds. Planting prep often entails tilling the ground and, if the ground hasn’t been leveled, “pulling levees,” or building water levees along contour lines to allow the crop to be flooded. These can be constructed before or after the field is planted.
In California, rice seeds are broadcast into flooded fields by airplane. Producers in the MIssissippi Delta drill seeds into dry beds. On the Gulf Coast, both methods are used depending on the rice farmer and their land.
How long does rice take to grow? From March to August — around 120 days — plants reach their mature height of three or four feet.
Rice is often grown in flooded fields, primarily because flooding helps control weeds. Heavier soils rich in clay are more suited to flood irrigation and to growing rice. Precision leveling can help ensure an even flood, but that’s not a requirement.
Fields are irrigated depending on the farm. There are two main methods.
- Earthen levees: These are constructed following the natural contours of the land. Fields are flooded with water and maintain a water level of two to four inches throughout the season.
- Poly-tubing: This method does not flood fields but applies consistent water in a more precise manner. Holes are punched along the tubing at the location of each plant.
Because rice is such a water-intensive crop, rice farmers are innovating to find ways to increase yield while improving the land and using as little water as possible. Some rice cultivation is now happening over other crops, with water applied less frequently.
While much of the U.S. rice crop is grown in contoured levees, some farmers are shifting to growing rice in rows, much like other row crops such as corn and soybeans. This method is less labor and cost intensive in many ways, although some farmers find they have to change their pest and weed management practices. Also, row rice isn’t flooded, which simplifies water management significantly.
Regardless of irrigation method, by mid- to late summer, grains of rice appear at the top of the plant. It’s time for harvest.
The rice harvest happens in the U.S. from mid-July to November depending on geography. Flooded fields are drained, making way for combines that separate the rice from the stalks. Rice is dried with warm air to improve longevity before it heads to processing.
The Problem of Red Rice
Red rice, also known as weedy rice, has become a serious challenge for rice growers worldwide. It’s a weed that diverts space and nutrients from farmers’ rice crops, but it’s genetically very similar to commercial rice, so common herbicides used in rice production are ineffective at controlling it.
What’s more, cross pollination between red rice and commercial rice results in more weeds, diluting the crop and reducing both yield and quality. This leads to lower prices for farmers at market, and scientists estimate that red rice cost the U.S. 6% of its rice crop annually from 2002 to 2014.
Some methods farmers use to control red rice include:
- Crop rotation, both of rice varieties and of different crops like soybeans
- Clearing fields of any traces of the weed before tilling, especially edges and ditches where red rice could be hiding out
- Rotating weed control strategies
However, red rice is an ongoing challenge, and rice growers will have to be diligent and innovative to stay ahead of it.
Rice Market Size And Price
The global market for rice in 2021 was estimated at just over $487 billion dollars. This market is expected to grow slightly by 2028, with specialty rice and long-grain rice driving demand.
Milled white and brown rice make up the majority of U.S. exports, with rough rice following. Totally, the U.S exports just under three million metric tons of rice annually. This includes rice exported as a raw ingredient as well as in processed and packaged foods.
Although the U.S. exports rice to other countries, approximately half of the crop stays in the U.S., with 80% of all rice consumed in the U.S. produced domestically.
Rice Uses And End Markets
The fastest-growing use of rice is in processed foods including:
- Convenience foods
- Baby food
- Pre-cooked rice
Rough rice, also referred to as paddy rice, is used primarily for animal feeds and in other applications that require grinding or processing.
The by-products of rice milling have other uses, too:
- Bran on its own and the fine bran/starch combination that results from polishing rice are used in livestock feeds.
- Bran is processed into oil for food and industrial uses.
- Broken rice is used for starch and rice flour.
Rice hulls are valuable as fuel, for industrial grinding, in the manufacturing of fertilizer, and as packing material.
Even rice straw has its uses; it can be optimized as animal feed and bedding and for objects like mats and broom straws.
Rice farming is crucial for our global food supply. A comparatively labor-intensive crop, rice production is also the scene of many advancements in sustainable growing techniques. While technology is changing the face of rice production in the U.S., what’s not changing is its significance in many growers’ operations and in the global diet.
Take a look at our offerings page to keep up with past and future rice farm offerings.
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