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Happy Little Grains of Rice

By Nick Faircloth

It’s winter, and we’re really in the thick of it. This morning, Senior Fellow Kelly and I walked down to the farmsite at our new placement, the AMI Urban Farm at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind (VSDB), and found a light, snowy blanket covering the ground. Our beds have been insulated with a thick layer of mulch and our winter greens are all leading quiet, dormant lives, holding sugars in their leaves to keep out the frost.

The farm is quiet, but over the last few weeks, my team and I have been very busy conceptualizing the future of our happy little space. That means planning successions, ordering seeds and exploring new methods for production. For me, this also means exploring a topic that has held my attention since last summer. That is, rice production.

While attending the Heritage Harvest Festival, I sat in on a workshop about upland rice production led by Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills. Upland rice is rice that is grown in a dry field, not the easily recalled flooded paddy. I learned that Thomas Jefferson successfully grew rice at his estate Monticello, not 40 minutes away from our farm site in Staunton. “Oh really?” I asked with raised eyebrows. From that moment, I was dying to try it for myself.

The realization of this idea is proving to be a wonderful challenge. Seeking insight on the process behind grain production, I investigated how the plant functions. As it turns out, rice farmers typically flood their paddies to control weeds, not because rice plants need to be flooded. The grain can tolerate having wet feet, something most weeds can’t. However, it actually does much better when grown in dryer conditions, allowing the roots to breathe.

Beyond the general understanding of the plant, I needed to become familiar with production methodology, that is, “How are people doing this in the real world?!”

My research quickly led me to several wonderful resources. System of Rice Intensification (SRI), is a name recently coined to an old method of upland rice production and is shown to be extremely effective, increasing yields while decreasing the number of plants in the field. Further down the rabbit hole I found One Straw Revolution, a book written by Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanoba Fukuoka that jumps between Zen philosophy, discussions of agriculture in a modern age and, of course, rice (really a great resource all around). Fukuoka spent twenty years developing a stripped down production methodology that does away with cultivation and uses under sown clover and straw mulch to keep the ground moist and the soil fertile.

What we hope to do at VSDB is an adaptation of both of these methods. By under sowing clover, leaving straw in the field, and transplanting the rice into unplowed, living soil, we hope to simultaneously manage for weeds, maintain soil biota and replenish soil nutrients. We will irrigate the fields during the dry summer months, though just enough to keep the soil moist, and we’ll decrease the planting density, giving each plant ample room to spread out as they grow.

This has proven to be a wonderful learning process, starting with basic research and moving into the details. I’m now contacting local growers in hopes of touring their fields to see what they have going on out in their fields. I’ve now come up against the task of defining how much space we can afford to give these plants and how we will incorporate that into the overall farm plan and looking into the diseases known to commonly afflict rice plants. There always seems to more questions to answer.

The planning involved with implementing this production system is just a small piece of what we’re doing to prep for this upcoming season at the AMI Urban Farm. As this is the first time I’ve gotten to try on the manager hat, the sheer amount of planning and understanding of farm workings that is required to make our efforts worthwhile seems extremely intimidating, but I’m constantly reinforcing patience with myself and the limits of my experience. Ultimately, Kelly and I are learning as we go and are making steady headway. Not unlike the investigation into rice production, farm planning seems to happen in repetitive stages as well.

First, we had to be introduced to the project. Kelly and I reviewed old planning documents seeking a deep understanding of the project’s scope and its goals related to outreach and production. We looked over last year’s farm reports to gain an understanding the successes and failures of our project’s past.

It’s that information that we use to direct our growth into the future. We use pest and disease history from the farm records to anticipate the pest pressure for this coming season. We use our production goals and data showing our yield per bed to plan the successions of crops to come. With that information, we calculate the number of seeds we need and draw out the spatial distribution of all of these vegetables. There’s so much to do, so many tasks, but learning the process is proving to be a rewarding challenge.

At the end of an intellectually exhausting week, it’s nice to reassure myself of this thing… More often than not, change and learning happens with the accumulation of many little steps and changes. Little steps, happy little grains of rice, each equally necessary in its contribution towards a tasty end.

Spring is almost here and we’re going to be ready.

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