Akaogi Farm sits on a quiet piece of hilly green land in Westminster West, Vt., in the southern part of the state. Takeshi and Linda Akaogi grow a great variety of fruits and vegetables on their beautiful farm, but the thing that brought me there this past week was perhaps their most unusual New England crop: rice.
The Akaogis were hosting the fifth annual Northeast USA Rice Conference, and I was there to learn more about how to grow this important staple crop successfully in our Island schools.
This past school year was the first we at Island Grown Schools tried growing rice as part of our new grain program, integrating staple grain crops into what has traditionally been fruit and vegetable-growing school gardens. This season we are growing rice in five-gallon buckets and in raised beds at most of the 14 school gardens we maintain at all the public schools and at seven preschools on the Vineyard. We love the experiment of growing dry-land rice with our students, but have much to learn about how to make this crop work in our Island environment.
The Akaogis grow a stunning array of different kinds of rice in three rice paddies Takeshi dug by hand, fed by a reservoir they built themselves just a few feet higher than the paddies. Each paddy is filled with straight, tidy rows of rice plants — some tall, some short, some with long fingers of young rice kernels growing on the ends, some not yet flowering. On the day we visited, in the middle of one paddy stood two huge dark-purple rice plants, tops bending down toward the water, laden with beautiful purple and white-streaked grains.
Each row is carefully labeled with a tongue depressor marked in Sharpie with a different varietal name. The Akaogis are farmer partners with Susan McCoutch and her team in plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, testing different rice varieties in trial growing experiments to see which will grow best in our part of the country.
Rice growing in New England is a new pursuit, but Dr. McCoutch and her team explained that there is great potential for the development of this crop in our region. Rice is the most important human food crop, with nearly half the world’s population relying on rice in their diets every day. The vast majority of the world’s rice is grown in Asia, but there are more than three million acres of rice grown in the U.S. Domestically produced rice has traditionally been grown in the southern states and in California, usually on vast acreage using techniques that require a great amount of chemical pesticide and herbicide applications.
Rice gives growers in New England the opportunity to demonstrate lower-input, more sustainable domestic rice production methods while putting to use farmland that has been considered marginal or unusable, and increasing opportunities for regional farmers and eaters.
Years ago, the Akaogis struggled with how wet the soil was on one part of their farm, a common challenge for Northeast farmers. When they dug into the dirt, water would pool up, and nothing wanted to grow there. That was when Takeshi thought he would experiment with growing rice, a crop he was familiar with from his years in Japan. Rice has now proven to be an important part of what he and Linda produce and an important part of their farm income.
As much of the country struggles with drought, and as climate change brings higher temperatures to the parts of the U.S. that have traditionally been the big rice-growing regions, New England, which is generally water-rich, could become an increasingly favorable climate for growing this crop. For those that grow wetland rice, paddies can also increase biodiversity on farms by attracting insects and creating new habitat for frogs and birds. The Akaogis’ rice paddies were teeming with life — tiny gray frogs, dragonflies and many kinds of birds kept us company while we enjoyed the beauty and peace of their hand-made wetland environment. Rice is also a highly unique and marketable product for farmers in this part of the country. Very few New England farmers have begun growing rice, making it a rare specialty crop for which consumers have been willing to pay a premium. With yields of up to two tons per acre in wetland systems, Northeast farmers could gain a new opportunity to fill a niche market that could support farm income and help keep their farms viable into the future.
We are honored to be able to work with Island children to serve as early pioneers of Northeast rice production, and will share our lessons learned in the school gardens about dry land rice production in our region with the researchers at the forefront of this work. As the students participate in this important agricultural research, we in turn are able to teach them a host of their required subject materials in the context of rice. From hands-on science work — measuring soils, plant growth, and more — to social studies-based lessons on rice production and rice culture from Italy to Japan, rice provides rich subject matter that our students can interact with in a hands-on way on their school grounds every day.
At the end of the conference, Dr. McCoutch from Cornell and Takeshi Akaogi thanked those of us who had gathered for participating in this great experiment of bringing rice cultivation to New England. We, in turn, cheered for them for giving us the opportunity to bring this fascinating and important crop to our own communities.
Noli Taylor is program leader for Island Grown Schools, a program of the Island Grown Initiative. She lives in Aquinnah and contributes regularly to the Gazette.