Rice Farming in Louisiana: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”
The South is saturated with history. At times it seems that the vast prologue of all that has gone before overshadows the present, that we pay more attention to where things came from than where they are going.
The burden of time hangs heavy in our minds, but for many people who are carrying on a multi-generational legacy, this story-draped past is a guide to plotting their future.
Perhaps in no other area is this truer than with food. No more ink needs to be spilled about the general, all pervading, rapturous relationship that Louisiana has with its native cuisine. The more subtle truth lies in the details. We have a glorious culinary tradition; but below the orange-and-scallion flecked sheen of an étouffée or submerged in the dusky roux of a gumbo lies the basic cereal that has filled out the substance of our food’s history. Of course, this substrate of our celebrated dishes is rice, and people have been growing rice in Louisiana for a long time.
One day last autumn, I was treated to a full serving of the history of rice in Louisiana when I visited the Falcon Rice Mill in Crowley, operated by Robbie Trahan and several other descendants of the mill’s founders. Along the rail line that slices through that town stand two rice mills; a generation ago there were over a dozen. Of the remaining operations, one is owned by a large food conglomerate and the other has been run by the same family for three generations.
The family-owned Falcon Rice Mill, where brands like Cajun Country, TORO and Jackpot are produced, is a rumbling mixture of the past and the present. The mill’s founders were enamored with the idea of a factory run from one central engine. The remnants of this exist today, as wide belts and whirling gears carry power to the polishing, hulling, and sorting machines spread across multiple floors of the mill. The broad, work-worn shop floor planks tremble as kinetic energy pulses through the complex web of equipment, vibrating a constellation of dust into the air shot through with beams of sunlight from the occasional window. Nested among this lattice of machinery are gleaming consoles that control modern sorting equipment from Japan that use lasers to determine the length and quality of the rice. It is an odd juxtaposition, but also the hallmark of successful multi-generational business—the old ways and the new ways weaving in and out of one another.
Prosperity rarely comes from clinging exclusively to the past, and modernity is helping to write the new narrative of how age-old traditions are carried on today. Falcon has diversified its production to cater to Latin American and Asian markets as well as shipping any broken grains off for use in pet food. They produce private-label, store-branded rice and ship it by the pallet-full all over the world. The total number of mills in Crowley, also known as the Rice Capital of the World, may have dwindled, but a collaboration between farmers and mills is helping to ensure that the next generation of food producers in Louisiana have a fighting chance against the increasing pressures of a globalized food market.
A few miles down the road from Crowley, near the small hamlet of Lake Arthur, Kevin Berkin’s family has been farming rice (and selling it to the Falcon Rice Mill) for four generations. Just as Falcon has adapted to modern ways with imported equipment and diversified products, the Berkin family has also followed contemporary food production methods. His rice harvester is a high tech capsule churning through the alluvial, Cajun prairie. Digital displays feed out a steady stream of data about the rice, calculating yield per acre, moisture in the crop, and even his precise location through global positioning system information. The now drained rice paddies are gouged by the reaper’s enormous tires as its slow progress over the endless mat of vegetation fills hoppers with rice bound for Crowley and then on to various corners of the country and even the world.
Heirlooms, stories, recipes, land, and an inscrutable sense of place are all passed down through the South’s affinity for its own past. Unlike so many parts of the United States where people have come for centuries in search of a new start and a break with the past, the South nurtures its traditions and practices like the patrimonial writ that they are. One does not need to scratch too deeply into the fertile soil or fertile memory of Louisiana to find a tale of how things were once done or catch a glimpse of how the proud families of this state will carry on into the future. With so much emphasis today being placed on “farm to table” eating, farmers markets, and artisanal foods we should count ourselves lucky to live in such a heavily agricultural state. It could even be said that places like the Berkin rice farm and the Falcon Mill had made locavores out of Louisianans before that environmentally and health conscious movement had taken root in most other places. The grand tale of Louisiana’s unique cuisine may be well known, but stories of our long-practiced farming traditions and how they have been foundational to our culture are still to be explored by those with a hunger to understand what Faulkner meant when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Frank McMains is a writer and photographer who holds antique machinery and lush, agricultural places in unusually high regard.