Rice – A golden nugget of our state’s history

by | Sep 18, 2020

Every Friday on social media, we post a Farm Feature Friday showcasing one of our dedicated North Carolina farmers. Tommy Wheeler, of Tidewater Grain Company, is one of those farmers. The #FarmFeatureFriday campaign will run through December 2021 on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Be sure to tune in each Friday afternoon on social and help show your support for our local farmers!

Carolina Gold Rice, the grandfather of white rice, has a rich history in North Carolina and a story all its own to tell. It originally came to our state by accident in 1685 when a merchant boat brought it over from Madagascar and used it to barter for repairs when it broke down off the coast of Charleston. From there, rice farming migrated north, through North Carolina, encompassing the entire “Tidewater” region. In the early 1900’s, rice stopped being produced in North Carolina due to hurricanes, state of the market and a variety of other factors. However, Tommy Wheeler and Al Spruill started Tidewater Grain Company and brought this delicious and historic commodity back into production in Oriental, N.C. “It started more with a history book than with agronomics,” Tommy said, “we are proud North Carolinians, and we wanted to not only have that historic footprint, but also be a part of and celebrate that story.”

Although Tommy grew up around the farming industry and Al represents a 5th generation farming enterprise, Alston Spruill Farms, it is duck hunting that really fueled their passion for agriculture. “Lots of duck hunting is done around rice farms in other states, which sparked our curiosity,” Tommy said, “we were looking for something that could combine our recreational passions with our agricultural backgrounds and rice farming really fit the bill.” Starting with only a test plot and growing 50 acres today, it’s safe to say that both men have learned a lot over the years through determination and perseverance. According to the duo, growing rice is similar to growing grass because once it goes in the ground you fight every weed known to man until harvest. “Rice farming combines all the agricultural struggles faced with other crops and adds the element of water control, which complicates everything,” Tommy says, “but, as we often tell our customers, we don’t grow it because it’s easy, we grow it because you deserve it.”

Carolina Gold Rice is harvested in August before it is dried, milled and marketed. A typical day on the farm depends on the season, but Tommy says that both him and Al wear a lot of hats. “We do a little bit of everything,” he said, “we are not only the farmers but also the marketers, social media managers and more.” According to Tommy, rice is either sold as “rough rice” straight out of the field, brown rice when milled once, white rice when milled twice or middlins/brewers rice, which is used to make beer because it is not whole grain.

Tidewater Grain Company currently offers a CSA pack of one cup of rice (7.5 oz), two cups of rice (15 oz), a two-pound bag or a 30-pound bulk container. Many regional distributors carry their products, such as Fresh List or The Produce Box, but their products can also be found at local retailers like Nautical Wheelers, the Berry Patch or the Veggie Wagon. They also work with local chefs, including Chef Keith Rhodes at Catch Restaurant. “We love working with Chef Keith because he does a great job of telling our story,” Tommy said, “he brings a perspective and depth to our story through his cooking that is completely uncommon in today’s time.” Tommy’s favorite way to eat Carolina Gold Rice is as a side dish traditionally boiled. “Carolina Gold Rice is harder to cook sometimes because it requires less water, but if it comes out sticky just put it in the oven on a baking sheet for 10 to 15 minutes and it will soak the excess water right up,” he says.

Despite all the challenges, Tommy and Al wouldn’t trade anything in the world for the rush they feel in growing a product that has not been commercially farmed in our state for over a century. “Knowing there isn’t anyone to really call for help is part of the excitement because this crop has not been grown here in 100+ years and that knowledge has largely left the region,” Tommy said, “we learn every day and improve every year. Knowing that at the end of the year we produce a product that people enjoy is the greatest reward.”

Tidewater Grain Company is a member of the Got To Be N.C. program, which helps spread their story and the impact of helping local growers like them. In the future, they hope to get their products into at least one retail outlet in every county of North Carolina. When the Tidewater crew is not working in the fields, they can usually be found in the Pamlico sound chasing whatever might be biting!