Carolina Rice Revival
04 Aug 2021
From Paddy to Plate: Bringing Carolina Gold Rice production back to North Carolina
By Christine Hall
Nestled near the banks of the Neuse and Bay Rivers lay acre upon acre of tall rice stalks swaying uniformly in the brackish breeze. The sun rises and sets over the flooded Tidewater region where wild geese and mallard feed. The moon pulls the Intracoastal Waterway tides as they nourish and protect the grass blades of the golden rice fields. Every morning, Al Spruill walks the muddy bogs to inspect the growing grains. “This seed planting from late March will be ready for early September harvest,” he says.
Spruill has lived his entire life in Oriental, North Carolina, where the wide waters attract boating enthusiasts and outdoorsmen, and the swampy shores offer dynamic habitats to explore. “The flatlands provide ideal wetland for waterfowl, fish and other animals,” Spruill explains. “On our farm, we work to live in co-existence with our natural surroundings.”
Spruill is a fourth-generation farmer who understands the importance of living in balance with nature. The first rice harvest from his farm is used as ‘Ratoon,’ which is put back into the lands for the aquatic wildlife and waterfowl. The second harvest is then sold and distributed around the state under the Tidewater Grain Co. label. The specialty grain company is the brainchild of longtime friends and company co-owners Al Spruill and
“This isn’t just any ordinary rice,” Tommy Wheeler says upon introduction. “This is the best rice you’ll ever put in your mouth.”
The Tidewater Grain Co. was an idea born out of a discussion between Spruill and Wheeler, a Davidson College alumni based out of Kannapolis. “In Pamlico County, little rice was grown until around the turn of the 1900s,” says Spruill. “Even then, it was sparce; one-to-two-plot sandy rows on private land.”
It was not until Spruill furthered his conversation with business-and marketing-minded Wheeler that the idea of harvesting rice in Pamlico County in the 21st Century was considered. “At first I thought he was out of his damn mind,” Spruill said. “But then it made sense.”
A Home-Grown Dream
Tommy Wheeler grew up hunting the bayous and bogs of the Carolina coast for duck and other waterfowl as a young boy. This family tradition became a formidable pastime of his youth, and later, a pursuit that he wanted to share with his own son. The problem was the coastal hunt clubs could no longer rely on the feeding and hunting grounds the centuries-old rice plantations had provided. “The rice plantations had dried up by the late 1800s with the emancipation of slavery, which left plantation owners without the knowledge or manpower necessary to grow such a labor-intensive crop,” Wheeler says. “Then a series of hurricanes damaged things beyond repair, the Industrial Revolution introduced new machinery that could easily drain the muddy bogs, and the state’s remaining growers gave up.”
Yearning for the coexistence of the rice fields and the hunting grounds of the past, Wheeler sought to reinvent the scenario on a mid-sized scale in Oriental. “The Tidewater region is well-suited for a semi-aquatic crop like rice because it requires constant irrigation to grow,” he adds. “And rice is remarkable in that it is one of the few crops that can flourish in flooded soils.”
The only thing Wheeler needed was a farm and a farmer to tend the fields. Enter Al Spruill.
“There’s something special about this rice and its story,” Spruill confides. “And while the seed has quite a scarred past, in our case, the story dovetails with our passion for waterfowl and coastal life. So I had to give it a try,” he adds.
A Legendary Seed
While the Carolina Gold Rice strain was found to have ultimately originated in Asia, the journey of how it got to the United States is shrouded in mystique. It is said that a distressed merchant ship arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865 with some of the seed from Madagascar. He used the rice seed to pay for ship repairs before departing, and the rest is history.
“An ambitious farmer named Dr. Henry Woodward saw this as an opportunity and planted the first crop of Rice in the Americas,” says Wheeler. “It took off and soon took over the South Carolina lowlands and stretched into what is now known as North Carolina.”
The coastal areas of the Carolinas thrived for more than 200 years with its flatlands, fresh water sources, and ship ports for distribution before the final fall of the state’s large-scale rice production.
Wheeler and Spruill had found a creative way to fuel their recreational pursuits that also benefits the land and environment. “We operate as a partnership,” says Wheeler. With a background in physics, mathematics and engineering, Wheeler handles the business and marketing side of things while Spruill handles the farming needs and production. This complementary match enables the partners to sell their Carolina-raised grain to restaurants, shops, local farmers markets, and through local cooperatives like Sandhills Farm to Table. “We have a goal to be in every county in the state,” says Spruill.
“We know exactly how the piece of grain has been handled from when it went into the ground and from the time it was harvested until it reaches your plate,” Wheeler says. “But it is no easy task,” Spruill interjects.
The Rice Cycle
Like a team of 21st Century Explorers, this dynamic duo tackle 250 acres of flooded lands each season for Tidewater Grain’s harvest.
First, the land must be prepared. Although the Tidewater region is mainly flat, fields must be examined for uneven pockets of too-deep water or exposed soil.
A high temperature, humidity, and sufficient rainfall with irrigation facilities are the primary requirements of paddy, or rice field, cultivation.
In late March and during April, seed is mechanically sown in rows. The fields are then flooded so the seeds can sprout. The fields are then drained for alternate wetting and drying periods.
A rice crop usually reaches maturity at around 105–150 days after crop establishment, or when the grains' moisture content is around 25 percent.
Most of this is done mechanically by Spruill and his team before being stored to dry for milling.
The process of milling removes the husk, bran layer, and germ, and results in what we know as white rice. Brown rice is not milled, which explains its relative heartiness compared to white rice. Tidewater Grain Co. hopes to open its own mill in the coming year.
This inspiring partnership is committed to producing exceptional product with ethical intentions. If you are interested in trying it out for yourself, you can order varying varieties and sizes directly through TidewaterGrain.com, through Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative at sandhillsfarm2table.com, at The Berry Patch produce stand in Ellerbe at 351 Cargo Rd, and at worldslargeststrawberry.com.