On Aug. 5, 2018, I, like many Americans, was under the impression that the rice we eat is primarily grown in Asia. The next day, I learned the truth.
I cannot account for the broad belief that the United States imports rice from Asia. It just kind of generally seems to be the case. But it is not. Aside from a small percentage of rice that is imported and sold directly into domestic Asian grocery stores, all of the rice consumed in the United States is grown here. Arkansas grows the most rice in the US, followed by California and Louisiana (the two states jockey for second and third positions). Texas, Mississippi and a handful of other states also dedicate farmland to rice.
I learned all of this while attending the Rice Harvest 2018 in Crowley, La. The event, sponsored by the USA Rice Federation, allows for attendees to gain an understanding of how rice is grown, harvested, milled and marketed.
I want to take a moment to step outside of our typical discussions of food processing and product development to remind ourselves of the importance of agriculture. In these modern times, the abundance of food on retail shelves and restaurant menus doesn’t require that we understand where food comes from. Not only where, but how it is produced and processed and distributed. Yes, traceability, sustainability and local food movements spark discussions surrounding food origins, but such knowledge is not prerequisite to buying and eating food.
Some people will spend their entire lives eating and drinking without knowing much about what they are putting into their body, other than “it tastes good.” Others, like me, may have a gross misunderstanding of food origin. I had no idea the rice I eat was grown in the United States. And we grow a lot of it. The US exports 50% of harvested rice to places like Mexico, Haiti, Iraq and Ghana. Our robust rice production means that communities in rice-growing states are intimately connected to successful rice yields.
In Louisiana, a string of towns south of Interstate 10 have established economic systems based on rice farming and milling for generations. This is where US rice comes from. Places like Crowley, La., where the entire community is seemingly connected to rice in one way or another. And they all come together each October for the International Rice Festival, now in its 81st year. The community’s relationship to rice is so diverse and refined that Falcon Rice Mill, a family-run business since 1942, produces a special rice called Toro specifically for local tastes.
It’s important for us as members of the food industry and as consumers to gain a better understanding of how our food is produced and where its agricultural components are grown. It reminds us that no matter how much research and technology we put into product development, no matter how many efficiencies we create, our food supply is largely subject to the whims of mother nature.