After farming crawfish for years with her sister at their farm in Prairie Ronde, Beth James (who is married to Dave Malone, formerly of the Radiators) partnered with Rolando Sanchez to buy a rice mill. In January, the duo (pictured) began selling their brand of non-GMO, single variety rice, Prairie Ronde Rice (www.prarieronderice.com). James spoke with Gambit about farming and milling rice.
What's your background in farming?
James: My father bought this land in 1981, and my sister and I ended up owning it in the mid-'80s. (We) owned Cafe Atchafalaya, and we started raising crawfish on the farm and had a distribution point in New Orleans through the restaurant. We raised prawns and catfish, too.
We've always farmed crawfish, and we would grow rice as a crop to feed the crawfish. We have a farmer, Rolando Sanchez, who my parents met in Mexico. My family rented a house there, and he was the child of the woman who was managing the house. He really wanted to come to the United States — that was his big dream. My father went to Mexico and got all of his paperwork sorted and brought him to Louisiana and started training him to be a farmer. When my father passed away in August 2005, I went to Rolando and I said, "My sister and I can't manage this alone." We reversed our business deal and we allowed him to take over. He had worked with my father for 20 years, so I knew he knew what to do. ... He decided that he wanted to grow rice as a crop and not just fodder for the crawfish. He just won Farmer of the Year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he just became an American citizen. This, to me, is the ultimate in the American success story.
What are the benefits of milling your own rice?
J: The price of rice is so depressed that a lot of Louisiana farmers are cutting back on production. It's a commodity, so you're at the mercy of the market. The farmer is the last one to get paid and ends up taking a lot of the risk. So I thought, we've got to change this formula. We did a lot of research. There were a few people that were growing on small rice fields and had these tabletop mills that would process about 10 pounds an hour. Last year our yield was about 2.5 million pounds of rice. ... I looked at mills in India and Japan. The one that I liked the best was a mill from Brazil, because it's modular: You can move components and switch to a bigger mill. We started with a medium-sized mill, and as we grow we can add a line for brown rice. We're only farming a third of our potential.
There are (not many) people in the United States that (farm and mill their own rice). Everyone is of the same mind as I am that we're not going to be able to depend on making a living with the way it is today.
How does freshly milled rice differ from other varieties?
J: People want to know where their food comes from. I can tell them with absolute certainty that we haven't used chemicals on our farm because we have live crawfish — it would kill them. We grow a non-GMO variety. In Louisiana where we grow rice, all of the farmers have to grow the same variety if you have farms next to each other because it will cross-pollinate. So we're all non-GMO (genetically modified organism) in the Prairie Ronde area.
When it's freshly milled, it's got a different taste to it. It's like the difference between growing beans or tomatoes in your yard or Louisiana strawberries versus California strawberries.
We have Louisiana long grain white rice. We mill down to the lowest standard to leave as much bran on the rice as possible. ... Our mill is so good that we have under 1 percent broken in a bag, which means they're all full kernels. That's a really high standard in the industry.