New Rice Rising

A soggy spot of ground prompts an experiment in rice farming.

November 4, 2013

On the first day that organic farmers Jason and Haruka Oatis had enough of their locally grown ‘Koshihikari’ rice to sell in 2010, a line of customers formed 15 minutes before their farm stand opened. “It was like they were camping out to be the first to get tickets to a ball game,” says Jason, who is lean and speaks with thoughtful intensity. The couple sold nearly 100 pounds of rice that day at their Edible Earthscapes farm stand near Moncure, North Carolina, at $16 a pound.

Jason and Haruka had set the rice’s price by asking guests at a potluck dinner to be their homegrown focus group. The guests, ranging from professors to farm laborers, filled out secret ballots to indicate how much they would be willing to pay for the rice they had just sampled. Jason averaged the results to come up with the $16 price. Guests left the dinner telling the Oatises that the rice was the best they’d ever eaten


“We are really blessed to live in an area where people are enthusiastic about their food,” says Haruka, who has a ready smile and a shock of dark hair. “We’ve had inquiries about getting the rice hulls to make pillows, mattresses, and fertilizer. There were a couple chefs who wanted rice to make sake.

Jason and Haruka met in 1996 at an English language school in Yokohama, Japan. They moved to the Japanese countryside to run their own school in 2001. Jason says that gardening together there for 7 years made them more aware of the food they ate. “I wanted to step out of the consumer role that is pushed on us and play an active role as a producer,” Haruka says. So they moved to North Carolina to become farmers. They began working on land set aside by Piedmont Biofuels as an organic farm incubator, later buying their own land nearby. A spot of ground at the bottom of a slope on their property stayed too wet for growing vegetables, so Haruka said, “Let’s grow rice.”

Growing rice organically requires a greater degree of farming skill than conventional growing, because there are fewer options for fertilizing and pest management, says Fugen Dou, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Beaumont. He notes that the acreage in conventional rice has fallen due to recent water shortages in Texas and price competition from imports. But the land devoted to organic rice nationally is at 50,000 acres and rising. Dou, who has begun a $1 million, 3-year study of organic rice growing, says that “demand for organic rice keeps increasing and production is unable to meet demand, even with imports of organic rice from Asian countries.”

Photos: Kyle Pearce

Many people told the Oatises that rice couldn’t be grown in the upland, clay soils of North Carolina’s piedmont region. Historically, rice in the American South was grown near rivers so growers could flood the rice fields with river water both to irrigate the crop and to drown the weeds; water becomes an organic weed-killer in rice paddies. But after reading about Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s success growing rice flooded by occasional rains rather than reliable rivers in his book The One-Straw Revolution, they believed they could do it, too.

An internet and catalog search turned up no rice seed options until they found ‘Koshihikari’, a Japanese rice variety sold by Kitazawa Seed Co. Developed in the 1950s, this semidwarf, early-maturing variety of short-grain rice commands top prices in Japan. To corner the market, Japanese growers tried unsuccessfully to keep seed of the variety from being sold outside the country. It is frequently used for sushi and also makes a good risotto.

The theme of The One-Straw Revolution is about working with nature, rather than fighting it. Jason and Haruka embraced Fukuoka’s notion of farming as a spiritual practice. They also gained practical ideas from the book, like coating rice in wet clay so birds wouldn’t eat the seeds when they broadcast them in May. And from Hmong farmers from Laos who had settled in a nearby county, they learned how to harvest rice kernels by hand in September.

With grant money from Rural Farm Advancement International, a group that aids small farmers using money from the tobacco settlement, they bought a Japanese-made rice-hulling machine a bit bigger than an old desktop computer. Jason hopes that soon there will be enough local rice growers that they can share equipment like the rice huller, which removes the inedible outer sheath. He knows of only two other farmers in North Carolina who follow the same approach to growing rice.

Jason and Haruka expanded the 2010 crop to 1⁄2 acre. To accomplish this, they wanted to build ankle-high berms to create scores of paddies, each with the footprint of a pickup truck. They didn’t have a river, but they could flood the paddies from their pond to germinate the rice, and rainwater would fill the paddies sporadically over the summer. But it would take weeks of daunting work for the two of them to shovel up a few linear miles of berms. Fortunately, Jason and Haruka are part of a local group called Crop Mob, a social-media-driven flash mob that helps family farmers in exchange for dinner, experience, and fellowship. About 100 Crop Mobbers of all ages showed up on a sunny February day for an afternoon of muddy, barefoot work that felt like play. With shovels, rakes, and wheelbarrows, they shaped up almost a half-acre of rice paddies in one day.

Beyond rice, the Oatises also grow Asian varieties of herbs and vegetables, such as Japanese parsley, mizuna, daikon radishes, Thai bottle gourds, Japanese cucumbers, and sweet ‘Shishito’ peppers. Their greenhouse production features in-ground crops such as tomatoes, turmeric, and ginger. They bring a skillet to market so they can share samples with customers. They also have a 30-member community-supported agriculture operation (CSA) in winter and sell to restaurants year-round.

The Oatises believe in taking a philosophical approach to life and to farming—an approach that embodies the ebb and flow of nature. In summer, they have a strict rule of only doing farm work from dawn until they break for lunch. Lunch itself may take a pleasurable couple of hours. In the afternoon, they are free to read or go swimming. Some afternoons they do some nonfarm work; last year Jason built a porch at a leisurely pace. But they feel that spending every daylight hour working on the farm isn’t sustainable for their emotional and physical health. Jason says the afternoons-off policy has “made farming really enjoyable for us.” And their rice sales have made eating locally really enjoyable for their customers.


Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, December/January 2014