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A Grand Threshing: Rice in Arkansas

by Swannee Bennett, director of Historic Arkansas Museum" "Rice field in Arkansas, showing levees, pumphouse, and water," postcard, collection from Historic Arkansas Museum 2011.27.49

In February of 1819 famed English naturalist Thomas Nuttall documented the earliest known reference to the production of rice in Arkansas. While visiting the old French village of Arkansas Post, located along the Arkansas River, a few miles above its confluence with the Mississippi River, Nuttall commented that “rice has been tried on a small scale [here], and found to answer every expectation.” Rice was certainly a part of the local cuisine in early Arkansas, with local merchants like Van Buren’s Messrs.

However, the farming of rice in what would become the United States began more than a century before Nuttall’s visit to Arkansas. The tidal marshes of coastal South Carolina would become home to the first rice farms in this country. During the last decade of the seventeenth century, rice seed was brought from West Africa along with large numbers of enslaved people who were experienced in its cultivation. Moving westward through Georgia then Louisiana, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the overwhelming number of rice farms were located in natural or flood prone areas containing clay based soils that would hold moisture.

" "Threshing Rice on J. F. Sims Hay Co.'s Farm Hazen, Ark." postcard, photo from The Art Studio, collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, 2009.26.1

Yet, it would not be until the end of the nineteenth century that Arkansas farmers, copying the techniques used in Louisiana, would begin to look at rice as a viable alternative to “King Cotton.”W. H. Fuller of Carlisle is considered by many to be the father of modern rice farming in Arkansas. A native of Nebraska, Fuller came to Arkansas to farm during the late nineteenth century. While on a trip to Louisiana he became fascinated with the well-established rice farming industry in Louisiana. Fuller would eventually spend several years in Louisiana learning the “art and mystery” rice business before raising his first successful Arkansas crop in 1906-1907. Thanks to the leap of faith taken by Fuller and many other farmers in the Carlisle-Stuttgart area prior to World War One, Arkansas would go on to become this nation’s largest producer of rice.

The prolific mechanization of farming equipment necessary for the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of rice and other crops following the Second World War contributed greatly to the dramatic increase in harvested acres. Back in 1907, W. H. Fuller’s first “bumper” crop of Arkansas rice averaged right at 74 bushels to the acre. Today, with improved agricultural science and production methods, the average Arkansas rice farmer can average 150 to 200 bushels to the acre.

Today, Arkansas farmers in forty counties produce almost 50% of all rice grown in the United States, on 1.3 million acres, and employee over 25,000 in the planting, harvest and processing. It is no wonder that the Arkansas legislature created rice as the state’s official grain in 2007.