Monday, April 9, 2012

RICE TALK

Marquart homestead in Lake Arthur, Louisiana
While we enjoy cool nights and mild temperatures during the day here on the Cumberland Plateau, friends in New Iberia, Louisiana, my second home, tell me they’re experiencing warmer temperatures at night in Cajun Country. One of the bad aspects of warm night temperatures in Acadiana is the effect that they have on the rice crops, which are a large part of the agricultural economy in this part of the U.S.

According to news passed on to me by friends, rice farmers are already facing low market prices, and last year they had to struggle with too much salt in fresh water used to flood their rice fields. This year, the night temperatures of 60 – 65 degrees in early April, awaken bacterial panicle blight, which infects the flowering parts of the plant and abort kernel formation. According to an article in The Teche News, when bacteria overtake the plant, it destroys the grain, and the farmer does not notice this infection until the plant reaches a height of a few inches. If the days are hot, a plant has to use more energy to produce photosynthesis, but at night it normally rests and the cooler the nights, the better the plant grows. If nights are warm, the rice plant is not able to relax, and this stress triggers the bacterial panicle blight in seed. The article concludes with the startling words: “There is no chemical on the market to kill the panicle blight.”

Rice at every meal
Now, rice is not only part of Acadiana’s agricultural economy, it’s a staple on the average south Louisianian’s table. It is said that Cajuns eat anything with rice – gumbo, gravy, rice dressing, rice pudding – the dishes are myriad and delicious. The latest joke in Cajun Country about rice, and its accompanying sauce or gravy, features, of course, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux. Boudreaux and Thibodeaux are walking through the woods one day when a flying saucer lands near them. A door opens, and two little green aliens climb down out of the spacecraft. Thibodeaux asks Boudreau, “Mais, look at dat. What you tink dat is?” Boudreaux, aiming his shotgun at the space critters, tells him, “Thibodeaux, I don’t know, but you hurry back to de camp and start making a roux and put on a pot of rice.”

Rice in Acadiana is usually rotated with pasturage for cattle every second or third year. The crop has been grown by farmers along levee lands since 1719, according to Malcolm Comeaux, writing in The Cajuns, Essays on Their History and Culture. When grown on the prairielands of south Louisiana, it was called “providence” rice as the success of the crop depended upon rain or watering by Providence. The early settlers on the prairie planted rice in coulees and ponds, and it was cut, threshed and hulled with primitive tools. During the late 19th century, rice production was revolutionized. Midwesterners turned it into a highly mechanized venture, using pumps, harvesters, threshers, and gangplows. Comeaux explains that except for the fact that the farmers at that time were growing rice, it “was literally an extension of the wheat belt into South Louisiana.”

My Great-grandfather Samuel Marquart, a farmer in Fontenelle, Iowa, brought a band of Midwesterners to south Louisiana and formed a land company with his brothers, buying the land on which the town of Lake Arthur stands. At one time, he and his brothers owned the entire town, and he made a large profit from land sales. He also had land near Lake Arthur that he thought would be good for rice production, and after my grandfather Emerson Lavergne married Leila Vincent and had three sons, Emerson and Leila left their teen-aged sons to fend for themselves while they tried to establish a rice farm. Unfortunately, The Depression caused the farm’s demise, and the failed rice venture became the legend of my grandfather’s career as a farmer. I remember him as a short, bald-headed man sitting in a cracked leather recliner in the dining room of my grandmother’s boarding house operation, reading or smoking a pipe, and rising from the chair only to shop for groceries for the boarders’ meals, or to do an occasional plumbing job. He seldom spoke to anyone except my father when we visited, and my father later spoke of him as one of the victims of a rice crop failure and The Great Depression.

One of the successes in rice history is the Conrad Rice Mill in New Iberia, Louisiana, the oldest rice mill in the U.S. Originally built in 1914, it’s an example of a factory that uses a belt-driven power transmission. P.A. Conrad founded this company in 1912, calling it the Conrad Rice Mill and Planting Company. He cut rice by hand and allowed it to sun dry on levees before placing the rice in threshers, after which the rice was put into one-hundred pound bags and taken to the mill. The business grew steadily, and Conrad began to package rice in smaller bags. Mike Davis purchased the mill in 1975 and has steadily improved the operation, as well as expanded the rice inventory. The old mill still produces fine quality rice that is marketed worldwide.

I am hoping for cooler nights in Cajun Country so that the crop that contributes to south Louisiana’s economy as well as provides an important part of Cajun meals can escape the bacterial panicle blight. Mais, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux need their pot of rice for exotic stews and gumbos!
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