Saturday, November 15, 2008

Crops with Legs

I was only a lukewarm proponent of rice with a meal--fried rice, red beans and rice, and refried beans and rice were the only ways that white grain made it to my plate. Then we discovered Ellis Stancel's rice grown in Gueydan, LA. Oh, my; oh, my. Just the aroma was enough to make me question my loyalty to the potato. And the taste was a nutty kind of sensation--there was a flavor to the rice!

As we drove through the area south of Crowley and north of Gueydan, we saw acres of land devoted to growing rice. We were able to join an Elderhostel group as they were touring the Wright farm south of Crowley. Jeb Wright, representing the fourth generation of Wrights to run "The Farm," presented a time line of the work on the Crystal Rice Heritage Farm.

Some fields are rectangular with levees around the perimeter of each of the large rectangles; some have levees in a curving pattern surrounding an area. Water from deep wells on the farm or from nearby rivers is used to flood the fields.

In January, an operation called "water leveling" is conducted whereby a machine passes over the fields and the fields are leveled and slanted (to allow for filling and draining the levee-enclosed spaces) by a computer-driven blade pushed by a tractor when the field is under a small amount of standing water. Water-soaked rice can then be planted by airplane.

In July-August, the rice fields are drained and the rice is harvested with the same equipment as is used to harvest wheat. The rice fields can then be flooded and planted with rice, and a second crop of rice is harvested in October.

In the second year a crop rotation program can be instituted. For example, crawfish, as a second "crop," can be "seeded" in April to feed on stubble and acquatic plants.

In October-November, the crawfish are harvested by setting traps (right) in the fields. The traps sit on the soil base about 18 inches below the water's surface.

(Some "harvesting" is done by egrets, much to the displeasure of the crawfish farmers.)

In what is now a one-person operation, the traps are checked, emptied into the boat, and replaced in the field.

Other options in the decision to rotate crops are to plant soybeans in alternate years of planting rice or to let the land lie fallow for that period of time.

Some farms control the entire operation of growing and drying the rice,

while other growers will send the rice to large companies in Crowley to be dried and sold.

Like all farmers, rice growers are at the mercy of Mother Nature. With the recent hurricanes, some land has been covered with salt water, and until a drenching rain comes along to remove the salt, the fields will sit.


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