RICE… in the Mississippi Delta

Rice, in America, got its beginnings in the low country of South Carolina. Because of the tidal surge of the Santee and other rivers that would push fresh water into low lying areas, the nutrient rich water could be trapped and held for the growing of rice. By the 1840’s Georgetown County and its surrounding environs were producing half of all the rice grown in the United States. Rice became a major export of the South Carolina and north Georgia low country with the majority of the overseas shipments going to northern Europe.

    With the coming of the Machine Age, and the advent of mechanized planting and harvesting equipment, along with the heavy weight of those implements, more suitable land was needed that could withstand the machinery and keep it from getting stuck in the mud. Rice is basically grown in water to keep the evasive weeds and grasses from taking over and crowding out the rice. It was soon realized that the broad prairie lands of southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas had suitable fertile soils that could hold up the heavy equipment. The evolution of the mechanization of rice equipment soon fostered in the southern rice growing states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Missouri.  Today, almost 90% of all rice consumed in the United States is grown locally and we are one of the largest high-quality rice exporters in the world.  However, it took awhile to get to that point with a lot of politics, innovation, technology and sweat involved.

    Most of the farms in the Mississippi Delta were historically cotton farms with the high sandy ridges planted in cotton. The heavier clay soils could be farmed with cotton when mules were used to turn the dirt in the winter, but as tractors took over, much of the heavier soils were put into cattle pastures and soybeans. The lower lying clay soils, referred to as “buckshot” because of its tendency to turn to pebbles when dry and disturbed, held water readily and was fertile and could grow rice. However, up until WWII, cotton was king in the Mississippi Delta with the farms suited to that particular crop. The banks and loaning institutions were used to the ability of the fertile land to service the debt each year required to produce a crop, and to pay for the land itself. Rice required irrigation wells to supply water and flume ditches had to be built to carry that water to the different fields. Precision engineered field levees had to be constructed each year to maintain a certain depth of water on the rice as it grew to keep the grasses and weeds at bay. A lot had to be accomplished before the Delta could become a dominant rice growing area. However, almost 50% of the farmable land in the Delta was heavy clay with an abundant alluvial aquifer sitting about 100’ down in the dirt waiting to be tapped. The Delta was ready for rice.

    In 1948, three cotton farmers joined together and formed a partnership to farm rice. Rex Kimbriel, Frank James and Malcolm Unkel came together and searched for the funding for their new venture. Eventually, Mr. Wade Hollowell of the First National Bank in Greenville agreed to finance the operation, believing in the young men’s abilities to grow a new crop. According to a book written by Rex Kimbriel in 1987, the first note on that rice crop was for $4,305.78 and it took five years to pay it off! Rice had been grown in Mississippi before, but this was the first commercial venture using modern techniques and machinery. Soon every county in the Delta was getting interested in the new money crop and “each Sunday, visitors came in droves to view the rice fields at the Kimbriel farm where the exact pattern of the contours in the field were clearly visible on the flat Delta land.” However, rice still had a long way to go to becoming a viable cash crop in the Mississippi Delta as the U. S. Congress in 1949 decided to curtail production by putting quotas and allotments on the crop.

    During intense negotiations with the U. S. Department of Agriculture, an allotment of 40-60,000 acres was requested for Mississippi yet only 10,000 acres was offered. Senator Jim Eastland from Doddsville was able to intervene and an allotment of 42,000 acres was given to the State of Mississippi. Senator Eastland was able to insert one sentence in the 1949 Farm Bill that allowed for the exponential growth of rice farmed in the Delta by stating, “that in the future, allotments come to the state adjusted by trend’. This allowed a farmer to basically build a rice base outside of the government programs before signing up and being a part of the allotment. It took a lot of capital investment to be in the rice business with Irrigation wells, storage and drying facilities and equipment. The allotment went with and stayed with the land, which made producers hesitant about farming rice on rented land. Delta and Pine Land Co. at Scott, along with a few others, were farsighted enough, and had the financial wherewithal, to place maximum acreage in rice from 1950-1953.  “These were growing times for the rice industry in Mississippi. Rice fields could be seen from Memphis to Vicksburg. Steel silos were visible on many Delta farms; a rice mill was operating in Hollandale and a dryer establishment was doing business in Cleveland”.

    Today, because of continued support of our Congressional delegation, and the guiding hand of Second District Congressman David Bowen during the 1975 farm bill negotiations, allotments have been opened up and a thriving rice business is prevalent in the Mississippi Delta. With its abundant resources in fertile land and available water, new laser guided technology that allows precision leveled fields to be land formed, and the storage, drying and processing facilities available, the Mississippi Delta has come to the forefront of rice production. Our ports and harbors ship millions of bushels of rice all over the world each year. From its meager beginnings back in 1948, the Mississippi Delta rice industry has become a dominant force in the worldwide production of RICE!