Standing waist deep in a 60-acre sea of rice, Robert Petter, Jr., of Stuttgart, Arkansas, marvels at the high-tech tools his family uses to cultivate the land they have owned for a century. Years of driving an unair-conditioned thresher in the blazing heat and laying out miles of levees by hand have given him an appreciation of the comparative ease with which they operate today.
"We're ‘robo-farmers' these days," he says with a smile. "We're in the fields with cell phones, pagers, GPS, and shop-door openers." The Petters now use lasers to design the levees that control the level of the water in the ricefields, which they harvest in comfort from the air-conditioned cab of a $160,000 combine.
Robert and his brother, David, work alongside their father, Robert, Sr., who has been farming rice, wheat, and soybeans all his life on the land farmed by his father.The brothers both have college degrees in other areas but chose to return to the family business. The Petter spread is one of roughly 4,200 Arkansas farms that together produce nearly half the U.S. rice harvest of 458 million bushels.
The Arkansas industry is not without its problems though. "The average age of farmers in this area is mid-60s," Robert says. "Most of the ones I know seem to farm until they fall over dead." Water is an equally serious issue--the shallow groundwater that provides 9 of every 10 gallons that flood the fields is being depleted. A federally funded reservoir system is under way, but it will take 10 years to determine whether it will control enough water to keep the rice farms operating.
The Carolina Connection
Water was not a problem in the South Carolina Lowcountry, where rice was first grown in this country in the late 17th century. A ship's captain traveling from Madagascar reputedly gave a Charleston planter seeds that flourished in the swampy soil. Local farmers quickly realized that abundant water and slave labor made the Lowcountry an ideal location for producing huge amounts of the grain.
Using picks and shovels, slaves built the levees and dikes that formed 150,000 acres of ricefields--a project likened to building the pyramids. They also cultivated the rice, a harsh and dangerous job. The planters grew incredibly wealthy from these labors, exporting Carolina Gold rice to Europe. They used their wealth to build a refined society and most of the beautiful homes in Charleston. When slavery was abolished, the South Carolina rice industry all but disappeared, moving to states where land was better suited to machine harvesting. In Bluffton, South Carolina, though, Dick Schulze, an ophthalmic surgeon, has been growing Carolina Gold as a hobby for nearly 20 years.
"When I bought Turnbridge Plantation 30 years ago, there were some functioning ricefields," he explains. "I grew some rice mostly to attract ducks. Then I began to read about Carolina Gold and found some seeds at Texas A&M's seed bank. The folks there generously grew a crop and sent us 14 pounds," Dick says. "We planted all of it and harvested it by hand, which was quite a job. Within a few years, we had a few thousand pounds." His son, Richard, Jr., later located and painstakingly restored an old rice milling machine. The Schulzes donate their harvest to a Lowcountry church, which sells it as a fund-raiser.