Traditional growing methods
An impressive example of these are the rice terraces in southern China and in the north of the Philippines. Set up more than two thousand years ago, these are witnesses to a landscape architecture which is counted as one of the most beautiful cultural achievements of the agricultural nations world-wide. The rice terraces also display man’s creativity when it comes to meeting one of his basic needs - acquiring food, and ensuring a long-term supply.
From the heights of the rice terraces down to the rice-fields on the flats, all plantations have one thing in common: the carefully tended dams, built to a height of 40 - 60 cms, ensure the vital water-level of approx 10 cms which the rice requires in order to thrive - from seed to harvest. The terms ‘watered rice’ or ‘water rice’ were not made up out of the blue.
Watered rice or water rice is the name given to the most common and most intensively used growing method. Roughly three quarters of all rice produced originates from this ecological system. Using traditional labour methods, a yield of approx 2 tonnes per hectare can be gained. The yield in industrialised countries is roughly threefold.
Irrigation plays an important role and is carried out in different ways in each plantation, according to local conditions. Sometimes rain-water is collected from fields on higher ground; sometimes flood waters are held back by dams, or water redirected from rivers. It often has to be brought to the fields from a great distance via canals or tunnels, or over aqueducts. As well as the many tricky systems that have been developed, the rice is watered in some regions quite simply with buckets filled in nearby rivers, lakes or reservoirs.
Full steam ahead: Ploughing by water buffalo
Traditional plantations even today are marked by the age-old pictures of water-buffaloes in the fields, driven by the farmers, pulling the plough through the tough mud. Both remains of the plant and the animal dung are churned into the ground in the course of the work - a labour-intensive and toilsome job. Clumps of earth are hacked small with harrows, for the finer the soil, the more evenly the rice can grow. Next the field is levelled. Dams are inspected for damages and cleared of weeds. Hungry ducks are on hand to gobble up caterpillars and the larvae of various pests.
Good seedlings are half the harvest
During the preparatory work, the young plants germinate in special seed trays. The seeds are taken from the best grain, selected by women who sift the fields before the main harvest in search of the best and healthiest panicles. For all sowing methods, the mother seed has to pre-soak in clean water and begin to germinate.Once the young plants have grown to a suitable size, they are tugged carefully out the ground and re-planted in the swamped fields at intervals of 20cm.
After five to six months, the rice is golden and ready to harvest. Three weeks before harvesting, the water is drained away. Using sickles, the golden panicles are cut and either bundled or left loose to dry in the sun. The panicles are threshed either on the ground or on wooden platforms. The grain thus harvested is then ‘thrown’, that is to say, placed in flat baskets which are thrown up in the air, where the chaff is blown away by the wind. But even these Biblical pictures are no longer pertinent, with more and more of the stages of work being carried out by machines.
Growing in Europe
Rice growing in Europe - to be precise, in France, Italy and Spain - essentially follows the same principles as in Asia. Even here, in the largest rice-growing area in Europe, the Po flats in Italy, the ‘customary’ rice fields can be seen, swamped in water and reflecting the sky, or - according to the stage of growth of the plants - shimmering in soft green to bright yellow. And in just the same way, the fields are criss-crossed by a network of canals. A great and successful man-made achievement is the ‘Canale Cavour’, named after the statesman Duke B. C. Cavour, which, fed by the great river Po, brings water to the fertile plains north-west of Vercelli and Novarra.
"Tempi passati" – bygone times
The horse and carts have vanished from the fields, and gone are also the wide-brimmed hats of the male cutters and the colourful scarves of the women, bobbing up and down as they pull out weeds or harvest the crops. Machines now drone over the fields like giant beetles...
Italy has long been the largest rice producer in Europe
And has had to rationalise production. A large, modern fleet of machinery is vital. Each stage of work requires the relevant equipment - machines for ploughing, harrowing, levelling-out, sowing, harvesting and threshing as well as drying the raw rice. Tractors with special serrated wheels in the form of giant, 20cm thick steel teeth are used for the work on marshy ground, e.g., during the sowing stage. Small businesses specialise in producing top-quality seed, which is set aside for the rice farmers in huge 500g sacks.
Before sowing, the seed is immersed for approx two days in clean, flowing water, where it is left - as in the traditional method - to soak. The seeds immediately sink to the bottom of the flooded fields. In Italy, mainly "Japonica" (medium and round grain) varieties are grown. This is also true of Spain and France. France is also known for its red camargue rice, famed for its unusual colour.
Raw rice, known internationally as "paddy", in Italy as "riso greggio", is dried until the moisture content has been reduced to between 12 and 14%, when it can be further processed without problems. If the moisture level is higher, the rice begins to ferment and rot. When it’s just right, a wonderful risotto can be baked over a fire, stirred continually and lovingly by the nonna... Buon appetito!
Growing rice in the USA
Rice growing in the USA is impressive first and foremost - as expected - by its enormous dimensions, and secondly by the technology implemented. Machines, fitted with the latest laser technology, level the huge fields and calculate to the nearest millimetre the gradient necessary for the optimal functioning of the irrigation system. Special machines are implemented for the construction of dams. Aeroplanes sow the pre-soaked seed in the flooded fields from a height of 8 - 10 metres above ground.
The harvest is generally brought in with the aid of several powerful combine harvesters, driving in convoy. These great machines drone through the fields, harvest the crop and fill it straight into the paddy in the accompanying silo vehicles.
In contrast to other cereals, and to the traditional harvesting by hand methods, rice plants are not cut together with the stalk; instead, only the panicles are cut off. From the field, the paddy is then transported to the drying sites, and stored in silos. The husks are removed in huge rice mills, where the rice is also cleaned and sorted, and is then, in this reduced form, ideal for storing and exporting. Hence it is not only known as "brown rice", but also as "cargo rice". The rice is further processed and refined as required, to come onto the market in various qualities. In their more than 300yr long rice-growing history, the USA has developed the most progressive technological methods of processing rice. Arkansas is the largest rice producer in the USA, followed by Louisiana, California, Texas, Mississippi and Missouri.
The perfect rice growing tradition began with a disaster
Namely with a Dutch brig, which, whilst attempting to sail from Madagascar to the Cape of Good Hope in 1694, was stranded in a violent storm in Charleston bay, South Carolina. The ship had been damaged so severely that it had to be repaired right away. The ship’s crew were treated most hospitably by the population, and when the vessel was again ready to sail, the captain thanked the governor for the pleasant time spent on land. As a departing gift, he presented him with a sack of top-quality "Golden Seed Rice". A small gesture with a huge effect! But what the wind brought, it also took away again! A series of violent storms at the beginning of the 20th century led to the abandonment of the rice-growing tradition in South Carolina in 1927. However, the rice growing culture in America did not stand still. It spread further west, right to Arkansas, where the official state hymn today sings of the place "where the rice-fields are full".
Arkansas actually began growing rice sometime around 1850, but it was not until prices for cotton - the predominating crop - slowly began to fall, that rice began to gain significance. In the course of the wars of secession, Arkansas lost many of its men, and hence advertised with success in Europe for workers. Particularly in Germany and Switzerland. How many Swiss immigrants helped Arkansas to its leading position as top rice producer of the USA remains open…. but be that as it may: The USA today is one of the largest rice exporters in the world!