For two hundred years, rice was grown on large plantations in eastern North Carolina. We get the backstory on this lucrative crop and we hear from a farmer who’s continuing the tradition in Chatham County.
When rice production was first established in the Carolinas, what we known now as North and South Carolina was a single colony. During the late 1600’s, rice plantations started to proliferate along the South Carolina lowcountry. Associate Professor of History at East Carolina University Karin Zipf says approximately 500 to 1,000 acres total were dedicated to rice cultivation in North Carolina. That’s compared to 70,000 acres in South Carolina.
“There are mainly two reasons why South Carolina was a more friendly state towards growing rice. One of those reasons is because it had a longer growing season, you have to have a longer period before the frost. And so the rice that was grown there was generally a slightly better quality at least for market consumption.”
A booming sugar cane industry in Barbados also played into the Carolina’s rice growing interests. Sugar cane, which was produced on the Caribbean island, was so profitable for farmers that they didn’t grow enough crops to feed their slaves. Farmers began to set up rice growing operations on the South Carolina coast, and the rice was sent back to Barbados.
“So what happens then is that in eastern North Carolina you see some of the growing conditions favorable to rice growing and some of these South Carolina planter families begin moving up to the Cape Fear region. They find that that lower Cape Fear River region is very suitable to growing rice.”
Around the mid 1700’s, Orton Plantation and Kendal plantation were established in Brunswick County in North Carolina to grow rice.
“Those two plantations were owned by a man named Roger Moore and he had about 250 slaves on those two plantations. There were quite a number of rice plantations in the area, most of them were nowhere near as big as the rice plantations in South Carolina.”
Readying a rice field was back breaking work, tasked mainly to slaves.
“it’s very difficult to do because these swampy areas with trees, some of these old growth trees that had to be cleared out. And of course, he brought in slaves to do this really hard labor in terms of clearing land.”
Before rice was planted, levees and dams had to be built so the cleared land could be flooded. At Orton Plantation and Kendal Plantation, fresh water from the Cape Fear River was manipulated to flow over the rice fields, submerging the plants for weeks at a time.
“and then when the growing season needed to have more dry soil, they would dam up the river in order to allow the crops to continue to flourish.”
Workers in the rice fields were exposed to dangerous and harsh conditions. They worked long days under the summer sun, trudging in swampy, snake and mosquito infested water.
“there was not any kind of mosquito control so there was a lot of malaria in the area. It was not healthful work at all.”
Zipf says planter families would give control to overseers and leave the plantation during the summer, when malaria was more prevalent. Slaves from Africa already had experience growing rice, with male workers doing more hard labor and women working with the rice after the harvest.
“They are the ones very instrumental in the techniques for separating the rice from the hull in order to make it consumable. And it requires a very deft hand in terms of utilizing what was a giant mortar and pestle in order to get these hulls off of the grain of rice without damaging the grain.”
Even with the harshest conditions, expensive plantation maintenance, and human labor, rice cultivation was a lucrative business. Zipf says though rice grown in southeastern North Carolina was mostly for local consumption, some of it was exported to the British Empire.
During the early to mid 1700’s, a new industry began to emerge in eastern North Carolina that would eventually replace rice production. Naval stores such as tar, pitch and turpentine came from the numerous pine trees in the region and was used as waterproofing for ships.
“it was a more exciting industry because it was very lucrative in terms of keeping ships afloat.”
It was during this time that three businessmen from Edenton set out to grow rice as a business venture. In 1785, the Somerset Plantation in Washington County was built. Assistant Site Manager Amber Satterthwaite.
“6,000 acres were cleared and cultivated by slaves who dug over 50 miles of canals and 80 miles of ditches here. Now one of the founders, Josiah Collins, he eventually came to control the entire plantation, he renamed it Somerset Place and wheat and corn would become the major crops here.”
Between 1750 and 1850, rice cultivation in eastern North Carolina began to dwindle. The emancipation of slaves was the nail in the coffin for major rice production in our state. Even so, freed slaves and farmers continued to grow the crop, just on a much smaller scale. Local historical records indicate rice was grown by a man named Samuel Potter in Pamlico County. Heritage Museum and History Center historian Barbara Kerr says that Potter was growing rice on his farm, located on the north end of Goose Creek Island as late as the 1920’s.
“When he reaped his rice, he would beat it out, he would put it in a cart, and then he took the cart to Fulford Point and he would have a barge ready there waiting for the product and then a schooner would come and they would, from the barge, they would put the rice on the schooner and take it to Washington. And I’m quite certain they’re talking about the original Washington which is not very far away.”
According to genealogical records, Kerr says another Pamlico County man named Colonial Jacobs also grew rice around the same time period, but very little is known about him.
Now in the 21st century, there are farmers still continuing the tradition of growing rice in North Carolina. Owner of Edible Earthscapes farm in Moncure, North Carolina Jason Oatis says he started harvesting his one acre of rice plants this week.
“We’re pulling it by hand. So we’re basically meeting each grain of rice by hand and pulling it off into a bucket. It does take a while to go through every rice patty and meet every rice plant like this.”
Oatis has been growing rice in Chatham County for six years. He planned to plant a variety of rice that has been grown in the Carolinas for two hundred years called Carolina Gold, but instead opted for a grain imported from Asia.
“we are growing a variety called koshihikari which is an old heirloom variety from Japan. It’s a really special sushi rice.”
The rice grown on Oatis’ farm is mainly used to feed his family, but some of it he sells to interested consumers in his area. Each May, his rice is planted and the field flooded using water from a nearby pond. The rice remains submerged for about a week during germination. After that, Oatis says it’s up to nature.
“So we hope for a lot of rain in June. This year, we got less than an inch in June, so it was much less than ideal. Last year, we got 10 inches or something in June. So we had a great rice year last year. This year is a little abbreviated but the stuff we did get in and we had enough water to start it grew really well and it looks very nice.”
Oatis says he enjoys the challenge of growing the unpredictable crop.
These days, the bulk of the rice America consumes comes from Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Texas, Missouri and Mississippi. Farmers in these states produce more than 20 billion pounds of rice each year, according to USA Rice Federation. While North Carolina doesn’t contribute much to the commercial rice industry, it is important to remember the history of rice production here.