Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/October 1890/Rice and its Culture


THE rice-plant (Oryza sativa) is a member of the grass family, and furnishes one of the most valuable grains known to economical science. It is cultivated, by the aid of abundant irrigation, in numerous varieties in most warm countries, and in the East Indies and China constitutes the principal food of hundreds of millions of human beings. The grain is also applied to mechanical uses in the arts, and the straw is one of the most highly prized materials of that class.

Ages before the discovery of America rice was cultivated in India, and is of volunteer growth in many parts of that country, "but principally on river-banks, where the seed was perhaps let fall." There is a wild rice preferred by the wealthy of Hindostan, but, on account of its small yield, it is not much grown.

There is no certainty of the place of the nativity of this valuable grain. The Chinese have much improved it by selection, which practice was in early years enforced by an imperial edict requiring the planting of only the largest grains. The most valuable variety grown in this country was secured by a South Carolina planter, who, upon observing some notably long grains upon a head, secured them, and so obtained the kind called the long grain. In the island of Ceylon there are one hundred and sixty-one varieties.

Various accounts are given of the introduction of rice into this country: one, that it was brought from the island of Madagascar toward the close of the seventeenth century, and planted in a garden in what is now one of the most thickly settled parts of the city of Charleston; and from this came the seed "that has made South Carolina the great rice-growing State." Another account claims that it was first grown in Virginia by Governor Berkeley, of unenviable fame, as early as 1647.

There are three varieties in the rice-growing States: 1. "White rice, valued for its earliness and for growing upon uplands, the husk cream-colored, and an ounce containing nine hundred and sixty grains. 2. The gold-seeded, with a deep-yellow husk, and large, fine white grain, eight hundred and ninety-six grains to the ounce. 3. The long grain, a sub-variety of the gold seed, having eight hundred and forty grains to the ounce; the grains are longer than any other, and it is the most valued for cultivation: for home use a long-awned variety, called the white seed, is often sown."

It is of the rice-fields of the tide-lands of the Georgia and Carolina coast, and of the adjacent islands, that we would speak. To those who have never been among them, these rice plantations would afford much that is both novel and interesting. This evergreen region, where the plaintive notes of the whippoorwill and song of the sweet-throated mocking-bird float up through the moss-covered trees; and negroes, fever and ague, rice-birds and alligators abound, would indeed seem to be a new world to our Northern brethren, and the picturesque effects charm the eye of the stranger artist. The rice-field darkey is himself a distinct type, totally different in both aspect and dialect from the negroes of the interior; and a not uninteresting sight is the force, as with song and shout they take their way along the embankment to the rice-field. Their ancestors for generations back, or, as they would tell you, "mi f arrar an' mi granfarrar," have lived and labored in these malarial regions, and they accept chill and fever and other infelicities incident to these localities as unavoidable evils, plodding on with no higher aim nor hope, careless for the future, and not over-anxious for the present. The cost of living is small, as not many nor very warm garments are considered necessary, and the rice-field darkey's ideas of a wardrobe are extremely limited, from both, blissful ignorance and choice. Fish and game are plentiful, and in these regions a heavy diet is to be indulged in only at great risk. Free labor is found to be more remunerative than slave, inasmuch as the idle or inefficient can be dismissed; and the rice-planter of to-day has not necessarily the care of the sick nor the doctor's bills of the ante-bellum time, when the very best physicians were employed. Then, again, there is the wonderful relief from anxious care; and the providing in every way for the wants of a large plantation of negroes, great and small, was no sinecure.

The best rice-lands are on the banks of rivers, for the convenience of flooding by the opening of the tide-gates, and also of conveying the grain to the mills. They must be so situated as to escape the salt and brackish water, but be below the reach of freshets, which are often most disastrous. They are alluvial lands, composed principally of decomposed vegetable matter, and when dry have the appearance of soot. Good crops can be made on other low lands, if so lying that they may be drained and flooded at will. These plantations have been and still are valuable possessions. It costs no inconsiderable sum to get them in order for planting, though less than formerly, as the planter of to-day cultivates fewer acres. The land is regularly laid out by a complete system of embankments and ditches, forming independent fields—the size of the fields being limited by the number of hands that can finish one day's necessary work of cultivation in a day, usually from fourteen to twenty acres.

The plantations are surrounded by a dam or levee, with floodgates and trunks, through which they are irrigated from the river. They are divided in squares, banked in, with a large ditch near the banks, which receives the water from the trunks for irrigation through smaller ditches fifty feet apart, through which the fields are also drained at ebb-tide.

Rice Culture.—Early in the winter the water is all drawn off, that the banks may be strengthened, ditches mended, and the ground plowed or hoed. In warm changes the water is again turned on. In March drains are cleansed, ground kept dry, clods broken up, and all made smooth with harrow or hoe. In April, and until about the middle of May, the grain is sown in trenches, a four-inch trenching-hoe being used, running at right angles to the ditches, and about sixteen inches apart. By some the fields are cross-plowed, and the grain dropped at the intersections. The seed is very carefully selected, and sometimes, in order to secure only the fullest grains, the rice is thrashed by hand over a log or barrel. The seed, when sown, is lightly covered, and the water turned on and kept upon the field from four to six days, until the grain swells and begins to sprout. If the seed is not to be covered, it is mixed with, clayey water and dried, when a sufficient quantity of clay adheres to prevent the grains floating off when flooded. With the first method the water is again turned on in the "sprout-flow," when the plants sprout "and appear like needles above the ground"; with the latter one flooding is sufficient. When the water has been on the sprout from four to six days, it is again drawn off; and when the plants are six weeks old, they are lightly hoed, and the hoeing is repeated in ten days.

Now comes the stretch-flow, when the young plants, several inches high, are flooded for two weeks and helped in their struggle for light and air, and, strengthened and invigorated by their native element, grow apace; water kills the weeds, but nourishes the rice. The water is now put down to the "slack-water" gauge, and if, as is generally the case, the plants are longer than the water is deep, the upper leaves float "in long, waving lines upon the surface"—a pretty, refreshing picture, once seen not soon forgotten. The water is gradually drawn off, and eight days after, when the field is dry, the ground is deeply hoed.

Volunteer rice, which is treated as a weed, often springs up with the regular crop. It is both hardy and prolific, and a great pest to the rice-planter. It can generally be removed by the hoes; then again it necessitates replowing and sowing, while sometimes the fields have to be thrown into dry crops for a year or two, or to remain flooded for that length of time. When harvested with the white, this red or volunteer rice greatly reduces its grade, and also renders it unfit for seed.

At hoeing-times a picturesque scene is presented, with say from fifty to one hundred men and women abreast, busily plying their hoes; the former in the utmost négligé of a laborer, and the latter with short, scant homespun dresses and leggins, all with broadbrimmed straw hats, or, in the case of the women, the head kerchiefs of the olden time. In the mouth of each is a stick, on the end of which is stuck, and smoking, a small piece of the punk taken from the heart of the oak. This smoke is for the purpose of driving away the myriads of "pesky" sand-flies that are more than enough to drive one wild, sometimes so thick that they have been known to cast a shadow. A young man, whiling away a summer holiday by a visit to the rice-field, essaying the same but to him untried expedient, and not understanding the manner of procedure, kept puffing away as if smoking a cigar, and soon had the punk in a bright blaze, so that he suffered the unpleasant consequences that await the inexperienced; there is something to be learned even from an ignorant rice-field darkey.

But in writing of rice and rice-fields I must not forget to give some prominence to the ravaging army of birds that feast upon the tender sprout and ripened grain, sometimes almost or quite appropriating the crop. The rice-bird proper of Georgia and Carolina (Emberiza oryzivora), the reed-bird of the Middle States, and the bobolink of the North and West, is one and the same. It is abont the size of a sparrow, and, while of grave and somber coloring during some months of the year, again decks itself in livelier plumage; and the quick, merry songs which enliven the grassy meadows during the breeding season, give place later to a "short, sharp chirrup." They are migratory, spending their winters mainly in the Western Isles. They come to the Southern States in early spring, leave, and return to the rice-fields in September and October. Continual war is waged against them by the rice-planter, and they are annihilated by the hundreds by the rusty muskets of the old darkey and the army of negro women; and one-garmented, short-skirted, dirt-besmeared urchins, who, by dint of "cracking" whips, and a continual switching at them, manage to at least mitigate the evil and give the persecuted rice a chance to grow. These little darkeys are sometimes negligent, and one of the old "drivers" used to say, "I gie um a licking, sah, f o dey go in fuh mek show ob dere bein' fateful."

Then, again, the rice-bird falls at the hands of the rapacious sportsman, who frequently by one shot puts an end to a half-dozen dozen little lives; and sometimes weary of gathering the plump little mouthfuls, so fat that they have been known to burst in falling, leaves many in the field, at the same time bearing home with him far more than "four-and-twenty" rice-birds to be "baked in a pie."

But to return to our more special subject. When the plant shows a joint the last hoeing is given, and the crop is "laid by" by the opening of the flood-gates, and turning on of the "joint water" or "harvest-flow," for the support of the plants, the field remaining under water until the grain is fully ripe, which may be two months. When matured, a few days before harvesting, the field is finally drained, and the ditches cleansed by the "succeeding tide."

Harvest.—The rice is cut with sickles, the use of heavy machinery being impracticable in a rice-field. The crop is now left to dry; but the day after cutting, when free from dew, is tied in bundles, which are piled in ricks or upon platforms on the canals and rivers, so arranged as to shed the rain, until taken off by the barges to the thrashing-mills; these flats carry each the harvest of from five to seven acres.

After Harvest.—Now comes the gala day of the rice-field laborer, when the crop is being taken to the mill to be thrashed. The barges are numbered, say from one to ten, and great are the excitement and rivalry of the men in command, the same state of feeling pervading the whole force. With flags flying they bend their full energies in the race from.the fields to the mill, and long and wild are the exultant cries from the captain and crew of the barge that first moors at its destination and wins the prize offered by the planter. After this great exertion the careful master of the ante-bellum time generally dealt out to his slaves the expected grog, and required a bath and change of clothing.

Thrashing, etc.—This is done by machinery: a thrasher much used was invented by Calvin Emmons, of New York. It separates the grain by tooth-beaters, which make from seven hundred and fifty to eight hundred revolutions per minute. The barge containing the bundles of rice passes under the mill, and its load is elevated by hooks to the floor above. When thrashed, if the crop is small, about five thousand bushels, it is put in sacks; but if large, say about forty thousand bushels, the paddy or rough rice is poured down a flume from the mill to the hold of the schooner in waiting, and is next taken to the cleaning-mill, which is frequently owned by the speculator that purchases it; and, when the grain is hulled, he in his turn sells it to the merchant.

By the old method the chaff was removed by pounding in hand-mortars hollowed out of pitch-pine blocks; it is now hulled by steam-power. When ready for market, the rice is put into barrels holding about six hundred pounds. The average of several analyses of rice gives—of albuminoids, 7·5; carbohydrates, 76·5; water, 14·6; ash, 6·5. Rice constitutes the food of almost one third of the human family. It is used in rice-meat and various aromatics, fermented and distilled into arrack, molded into models and busts, and is employed in paper-making, cement, and starch; the chaff, broken rice and dust, makes valuable food for cattle; the straw is sold for forage and bedding, and is also used in the manufacture of bonnets, while the Southern housewife can tell of the use of rice-flour in the making of delightful breads.

The total rice crop in 1870, according to the Federal census, was 73,635,021 pounds, a decided falling off from 215,313,497 pounds in 1850, and 187,167,032 in 1860. The yield for 1879 was better, being 110,131,372 pounds. Charleston, S. C, is the great rice market of the United States. The American grain is much preferred to the imported, and, as the demand is far greater than the supply, there is still ample room for the rice-planter.

It is observed, in Dr. G. M. Humphrey's book on Old Age, that the fertility of long-lived persons is above the normal, and in some continues to an advanced old age. The effect of the combination of conditions must be to give the stock of long-lived people an advantage in the race for existence, so that one would expect their number, in proportion to the rest of ihe population, rapidly to increase. This may help to account for the greater number of aged people, and the prolonged continuance of vigor among them.