The Story of Rice Farming in the United States (Part 2 of 2)

The planting of rice has shaped much of Japan’s economy, politics and culture throughout history. Rice makes up almost a quarter of a typical Japanese diet. The former Emperor of Japan himself takes pride in farming rice and has rice paddies around the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Rice is also a part of many religious ceremonies that has influenced the nation.

Rice broker in 1820s, Japan. Painting by Katsushika Hokusai.

How a Japanese family spurred rice cultivation in Texas

There were only 13 Japanese citizens living in the entire state of Texas in 1900. The number grew quickly during the first decade of the new century when immigration increased.  The influx was attributed to the mindset of Japanese migrants hoping to find better economic possibilities in the United States with Texas allowing them to own and work their own land in a part of the country that was considered to be more welcoming.

“For the early rice colonies in Texas, this was a strategic migration on the part of the Japanese government and in collaboration with very prominent white rice farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” according to Megan White, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who is an expert on rice cultivation in Texas at the turn of the 20th century. “These first farmers aren’t farmers at all in their background.”

Hauling rice in South Texas.

Japanese communities began to emerge all around Texas, some with the support of the United States government. In 1906, a man named Takayama began a rice colony in Deepwater. Seito Saibara, who first came to Texas in 1904, a former university president and the first Christian member of Japanese parliament, had been invited specifically by the city of Houston to improve the state’s rice industry and to show them how to grow rice in a region with a hurricane season. . According to Houston’s chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, rice yields jumped from about 19 barrels an acre to 34 barrels per acre over the three years since the first harvest.

The rice market crashed following World War I, leading other Japanese growers to abandon the crop. The Saibara farm continued with rice farming with Blue Rose rice, a genetic riff on several successful Japanese rice strains was branded as the first American rice, despite its East Asian origins.

Rice in the United States today

The Gulf Coast rice industry jumpstarted by Saibara spans Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but is relatively not that big in scale. More than 100 varieties of rice are commercially produced primarily in six states (Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and California) in the U.S., providing about 12% of world rice trade with majority of domestic utilization of U.S. rice as direct food use (58%), while 16% is used in processed foods and beer. 10% is found in pet food.

Irrigated rice plantation, California. | Water Alternatives