Having spent many years living in Japan, both my wife, Haruka and I had become quite accustomed to eating rice on a daily basis. When we moved back to the states, our desire to eat rice every day stayed with us, and being the rice snobs we are, we often find ourselves buying rice produced in Asia. We sought a more sustainable option, and Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote One Straw Revolution gave us the inspiration to try our hand at growing rice in North Carolina.
Fukuoka’s book is a must-read for anyone, and while we’re generally following the tenets he laid down over more than 3 decades of farming, we have carved out our own approach to growing rice this year.
We first started to think about growing rice last year, when we realized that the southeast corner of our farm was extremely slow to drain. So much so, that the beds in that area would become boggy and prevent our crops from reaching their full potential. Last winter, we began digging out the area and making a flat rice paddy.
In the spring, we made clay seed pellets using Koshi Hikari seeds. Koshi Hikari is a premium Japanese sushi rice.
First we crushed large chunks of dried clay into a fine powder.
Next, we put the rice seeds in a bucket, misted them with water and then poured the clay powder over them. The result was clay-coated rice seed.
We then worked the seeds through a mesh screen so that they weren’t clumped together, and then we allowed them to dry.
I then broadcasted the seed pellets into the rice paddy by hand. The reason for pelleting the seeds is to protect them from foraging birds. Fukuoka broadcasted his seeds in the fall and let them lay dormant all winter until the weather became warm enough for them to germinate. We’ll try this method this coming autumn, but since we missed the window last fall, I broadcasted the seeds on May 7th.
On May 12th the rice seed started to germinate, which was the cue to start flooding the paddy. Miraculously, it poured rain the very next day. We had over 2 inches of rainfall here, and the rice paddy flooded within hours.
Unfortunately we soon realized that the 1000 square foot paddy was not nearly flat enough to get a level flooding. All of the water collected in the southwest corner of the paddy, which happened to be the one area of the paddy that doesn’t hold water well. In order to remedy the situation, we got to work reconstructing the paddy into 8 level sections. We built a canal system connecting each section so that water from the uppermost section would run into the next section when it reached a depth of 2 inches, and so on and so forth through the 8 sections until it reached the lowest section. This made it so that we could flood the paddy from the top section, and eventually all of the levels would have 2 inches of standing water. We did most of this work during the downpour which made it easy for us to sculpt each section as a completely level surface.
During the process of sculpting the level sections of the paddy.
Sculpting the rice paddy.
In order to save the rice seedlings while we did this work, we painstakingly pulled all of them up, put them in buckets, and then transplanted them into the paddy after the sections were finished. It was a tough 2 days of work, but now our paddy is just as it needs to be, and we plan on keeping those sections as they are for years to come.
After transplanting as many seedlings as we could from the initial 1/2 pound of seeds we sowed, I scattered another 1/2 pound of seed into the standing water of the paddy. These seeds germinated within 5 days at a very good rate.
The paddy stayed flooded for 3 days after the big rainfall. We continued to keep the paddy flooded for 2 weeks using water collected off our greenhouse water catchment system. We were also fortunate to get more rainfall during that period. After 2 weeks of growing in standing water, the rice plants were firmly established, and it was time to stop actively flooding the paddy.
rainwater catchment system off the greenhouse.
According to Fukuoka, rice can grow in standing water, but doesn’t need to. Conventional rice operations keep their paddies flooded for weed and insect control. Fukuoka found that rice competes well with weeds, and that insect damage was countered by the high yields that his method brought. Seeing as though we live in an area susceptible to drought, we felt that Fukuoka’s method made a lot more sense than conventional methods.
June 16th – Rice growing amongst germinating white clover.
In order to keep the rice paddy moist through the summer, we sowed white clover seeds on May 28th. The clover will act as a cover crop, filling in the spaces around the rice, choking out weeds and fixing nitrogen in the process. Next year the clover will come back as a perennial when the weather warms up in the spring.
Sky and Haruka hanging out by the rice paddy.
June 16th – 33 days after germination.
Stayed tuned for updates on this project!