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The Farming and Processing of Rice

Although this picture dates from c. 1900, it gives a good idea of a rice plantation farm. The chimney belongs to a pounding or rolling mill that removed the husks from the rice. Originally these were powered by steam engines but later versions operated by petrol.
A rice field system was divided up into a patchwork of rice paddies, divided by narrow ditches that linked up to a main channel that provided water to flood the rice paddies through floodgates. These rice fields were therefore often grid-like in appearance, with roughly rectilinear fields divided by water ditches and small embankments.
2nd Battalion, 7th Marines advancing though rice paddies. This picture illustrates perfectly the raised embankments between the individual rice fields, which have been carefully flooded with water.
It was important to keep floodgates or 'trunks' in good order, as much to contain water on the fields when required as to keep water out when not required.
Seed was sown by digging a hole with the toes, dropping in the seed and firming the soil with the heel. Alternatively, the seed was 'clayed': the slaves trod the seed into watery clay with their feet to give the seed a coat of clay [left]. This 'clayed' seed was then sown on the field and the weight of the clay was heavier enough to prevent the seed being washed away during the sprout flow.
The main tool used by the slaves was the hoe and this general purpose tool served for most tasks in the paddy field.
A rice paddy field, after it had been inundated, showing the dividing ditch between the individual fields.
The rice sickle remained the tool of choice for harvesting in many areas until well into the 20th century. Knives were also used. The rice was cut very close to the ground and then left to dry either on the rice stubble or on special racks.
Slaves working at harvesting the rice plants. These were then bound up and left on the stubble to dry.
The rice plants were then carried in huge piles on the heads of the slaves and taken to the flats - shallow-draught, flat barges similar to a punt in order to be taken to the plantation processing yard.
This flat has been tied up to the river bank in order to be loaded with the rice plants. The rice plants were carefully stacked on the flats. Owing to the huge amount of rivers, navigable waterways and marshes, water transport was the chosen method of transport. The rice was then taken to the plantation farm to be stored in the barn ready for threshing.
Threshing the dried rice plants was carried out in a similar way to threshing wheat. Flails were used to beat the rice straw, thereby loosening the rice grains.
These were gathered up and underwent winnowing to remove dust, small pieces of broken stalk and loose husks with a rice winnowing basket. The rice might be sold in this state with its husk on, in which case it was termed "rough rice". In the background, a slave is pounding the rice in a crude mortar to remove the husks. This process is known as hulling and later became termed milling when powered rotary stones were used.
A plantation might also build a winnowing house, a large shed on tall posts, which had a hole in the floor in which was set grill. Once the rice had been husked, it was carried up into the winnowing house and dropped through the floor hole. As the grain dropped, the lighter chaff and dust was blown away, leaving clean rice grain to fall to the ground. Plantations without a winnowing house provided slaves with a fanner basket to fan the dust and husks off the rice grains. The grain was ready to be packed into barrels, ready to be taken to Charleston or another such rice port. Also pictured is a rotary quern for hulling rice and milling the rice grains. This was turned either by slaves or animals.
[ Engraving showing Rice Milling Machinery in South Carolina from Viaggio Negli Stati Uniti.... Luigi Castiglioni. (Milan, 1790) ]
Because slave labour was cheap, the manual way of hulling, or removing the husk from rice, remained well into the 19th century. However, by the end of the 18th century, expensive water-powered mills for hulling rice had begun to appear. Like the wheat mill, they relied on rolling the rice grains between two stones. "The stones are to be dressed with a few deep furrows, with but little draught, and picked full of large holes; they must be set more than the length of the grain apart. The hoop should be lined inside with strong sheet-iron, and this, if punched full of holes, will be thereby improved. The grain is to be kept under the stone as long as necessary. The principle by which the grains are hulled, is that of rubbing them against one another, between the stones with great force; by which means they hull one another without being much broken by the stones."
[Description of "a mill for cleaning and hulling rice." from Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide by Oliver Evans. 1850.]
After the rice had been de-husked, it was sieved to separate it from the dust and husks, in which form it was known as "cargo rice" or whole rice. It was then packed into barrels and taken downstream on boats to the local port to the wharehouses of the rice merchants. Once a consignment had been collected, it was loaded onto ships bound for Cowes.
Preparing barrels ready to load on ship from a cartouche on a map of Virginia and surrounding areas, drawn by J. Fry and P. Jefferson, 1751.

Produced by the Isle of Wight History Centre. © 2004
Text by Rob Martin.
Created: January 2004.