Why you should care
Because for some farmers rice is a way of life.
The Brantleys are a century farm family, having raised crops in Arkansas for decades. Today, Dow Brantley, the 44-year-old manager of the family’s farming company, is driving a pickup across land the Brantleys have long cultivated. It’s fall, which means his daughters are preparing for cotillion balls, and the harvest is over. Fields once spiked with rice shoots are now a shimmering lake — each year rice farmers here flood their lands and transform them into quail hunting grounds for paying customers. As Brantley drives along the shoreline, dozens of geese and ducks launch off the water and flutter into the sky in perfect sync.
This is just one glimpse of life along the western edge of the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas, where the soil is rich with nutrients yet also waterlogged, making it difficult to cultivate anything but rice. The Riceland Foods Cooperative, based in Stuttgart, has grown into a powerful economic force in the region, employing 1,500 people, bringing in more than $1 billion in annual revenue and operating seven rice mills, including the largest in the world, in Jonesboro. With around 5,500 member farms, the cooperative’s products are shipped to more than 60 countries. In all:
Arkansas rice accounts for half of the American crop, with more than 500,000 acres in cultivation.
Nationally, the rice industry is at a pivotal juncture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that rice consumption, exports and stocks will likely see declines this fiscal year. Reports show that rice production has dropped by a fifth so far, with the major culprits being the hurricanes that battered the Gulf of Mexico, rustling rice farms in Texas and Louisiana — although, as Brantley notes, most of the damage was done after the harvest. The U.S. already is at a disadvantage when it comes to rice output: It doesn’t even make the top 10 of major rice producers, a list dominated by such countries as China, India and Indonesia. Yet the nation consistently punches above its weight, often ranking among the top five global exporters of the grain.
Globally, rice is a controversial crop. Nearly half of the world’s countries rely on it as a major dietary staple, but that also makes nations fearful of opening their domestic product to outside competition. “Rice is the most politically sensitive crop,” says Brantley. But there is hope on the horizon for some Arkansas farmers trying to compete more on the global stage. This summer China agreed to a protocol that would allow the U.S. to export rice to the world’s largest importer of rice.
American production is small compared to Chinese consumption — China could consume “our entire rice crop in two weeks,” says Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission — but it would be a boon for U.S. farmers. “We’re still waiting on the regulators from China to come through and do the inspections they need to, but we have talked to our rice brokers here, and they’ve already put orders in to China,” Preston says.
It’s an example of how Donald Trump has aided his voter base in other ways than just tax reform. Rice farmers raised the protocol issue to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Brantley says, and he feels like the Trump administration listened in a way the Obama-era secretary did not. “Tom Vilsack just couldn’t get it done — and didn’t seem to have much interest in doing it,” Brantley gripes. That sentiment is reflected across Arkansas, where 60 percent of voters backed Trump on Election Day 2016.
Here in Arkansas, conservation is at the top of the minds of rice farmers like Brantley. The state has an abundant supply of both underground water and surface streams, but aquifers are becoming depleted. Both Arkansas and the feds have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the BioMedia and White River irrigation projects to alleviate the problem. Guiding his pickup truck along a worn path, Brantley drives past his latest project, a reservoir that will cost him half a million dollars to complete but which he says is worth it. After all, it will be more sustainable, replacing groundwater with enough irrigated water to supply more than 1,000 acres of farmland. “We’re trying to think a generation ahead,” he says, “while not knowing who that next farming generation will be.”
For a brief moment, the state that calls itself the Land of Opportunity had the chance to be just that.
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