The most important thing about harvesting rice is that it has to be picked dry, and it has to stay dry.
“Now don’t get any wet parts in there, or it’ll mold the whole bag,” instructs horticulturist Rollen Chalmers, showing me how to slice the bent bunches of husked kernels with a curved scythe.
The ground sinks beneath our boots as we slowly make our way through the waist-high grasses of Carolina Gold Rice, the local heirloom varietal lost over the decades then revived in the 1980s by South Carolina gentleman farmer Glenn Roberts and his artisan grain company Anson Mills. Rollen has been integral to the rice’s resurrection, planting and tending fields all over the Lowcountry using the techniques and tenets of his Gullah Geechee ancestors.
Rollen watches me hack away at the bunches he calls “beards” for a few minutes before gently taking the scythe away and handing me some clippers. “Here, these might be a little faster.” Probably safer, too; I’d already seen several fingers nicked over the course of the afternoon.
He’s not trying to hurry anyone, but the half-acre field must be cleared before the dew returns at dusk and he can drive the bounty to Columbia before dawn. There the hulls will be removed by the mill’s massive machinery, the rice cleaned and weighed. Rollen will bring it back here to Wormsloe Plantation, where University of Georgia professor and seed saving guru Sarah Ross oversees this and countless other agricultural “experiments” that explore and integrate the culinary and cultural histories of the South and more specifically, this plot of land.
Rice became a staple here and other nearby plantations after the Jones family who settled Wormsloe in 1733 almost starved to death trying to employ traditional English farming practices. They’d pretty much given up on farming, instead raising cattle and relying on shipments of food from Mother England—until landowners started “borrowing” slaves from South Carolina to cultivate the wetlands. While it’s true General Oglethorpe banned slavery for his modest settlers in the Georgia colony, by 1751 the Trustees figured out how to increase their prosperity on the brutally-treated backs of enslaved African labor.
Staking out acreage that still belongs to Jones’ family descendant and research benefactor Craig Barrow, Sarah’s one-woman UGA satellite campus coordinates the research of a dizzying amount of disciplines—including but not limited to ecology, geography, geology, hydrology, archaeology, forestry and historic preservation—to analyze and preserve ancient growing practices as well as bring forward the knowledge and influence of the indigenous inhabitants and enslaved Africans who made life here possible.
“Food is the organizing tool of society,” muses Sarah as she expertly slashes handfuls of husks with the scythe. “When we study foodways, we understand history and how to apply it to what it might mean for the future.”
The breadth of Sarah’s vision and stewardship touches into the South’s slow food, organic farming, and Black heritage communities, and her relationship with Rollen goes “way back,” their conversation over the rice plants punctuated by lots of laughter. Rollen helped prepare and design this field, allowing fresh water—no salty brine from the marsh, no sir—to flood the grasses with nutrients and choke out weeds, then drain before the roots rot. It’s a rhythm that requires skill and a certain intuition.
“Without him, we couldn’t do this,” says Sarah. “We have the seeds, but the knowledge of how to grow it has to be passed down from people who know the land.”
Last year the Wormsloe field yielded 300 pounds of Carolina Gold; Rollen harumphs that it could've been more like 600 if he’d come in here with his combine and gathered it up in one swoop. Sarah smiles and waves her scythe, pointing out that the field is too small for that, and anyway, it’s the experience that counts.
“We want to bring agriculture into people’s lives, and doing this by hand helps show just how much human labor it once took to feed and sustain this one piece of land.”
While Sarah laments that the group invited to harvest this year’s Wormsloe crop had to be limited, it is as wildly interdisciplinary as her research: I carpooled with my BFF and pop-up pastry queen Natasha Gaskill, who I don’t think will mind if I call her a “grain groupie” for her passion for and knowledge of regionally milled flours.
Over two afternoons we’re joined in the field by BJ Dennis, the brilliant young Gullah Geechee chef garnering international accolades, and soul food legend Roosevelt Brownlee, who cooked for Muddy Waters, Nina Simone and other jazz greats along the hoppin’ European festival circuit before returning to Savannah in the 1980s.
Writer and Krak Teet author Trelani Michelle has temporarily traded in her notebook for a scythe, and Savannah Country Day School teacher Peter Curran and his wife, Karen, collect kernels and information for the school’s pioneering Atlantic Studies program. Sustainable farmer Ken Melton of Lowland Farms arrives from John’s Island with his daughters, Lily Bell and Daisy, their delighted shrieks mixing with the music of bird calls and the breeze whispering through Wormsloe’s colossal oaks.
Farm manager Tova Kranz, who spends plenty of months toiling by herself in Wormsloe’s working fields and gardens, seems to enjoy the action in spite of many plants flattened by so many boots. “Harvesting is the fun part. Planting seeds is what takes patience.”
The atmosphere is convivial and chatty, likely due to the cool autumn air and the fact that none of us are actually dependent on this rice to survive, unlike those who planted it centuries before.
In a three-hour stretch, I’ve gathered about enough rice to feed a family for a meal or two, maybe a week’s worth if it's stretched with garden vegetables and a bit of deer meat from Wormsloe’s wandering herd. I am terribly humbled when Sarah describes how before mills, the women (and of course, it was always the women) would spend weeks separating the grains from the husks using a large mortar and pestle, taking care not to break the kernels. Back then a moldy bag of rice meant starvation, and in the waning sunlight, I touch each beard before I clip it to make sure the husks are paper dry.
I don’t know how she has the energy after two days of harvesting, but on Saturday after the sun sets Sarah whips up a dinner spread fit for Georgia royalty: Sea Island red field peas courtesy of Anson Mills, smaller brown beans barely the size of child’s pinky nail, cornbread cooked in a cast iron pan, heirloom collards flavored with bacon and grown by Tova a few feet away from the former slave cottage that is now the research center dining hall.
Ken and his girls have brought along a bushel of fresh-picked rattlesnake pole beans, which Sarah steams with butter and salt. Rollen breaks out a bottle of deep purple Sapelo sugarcane syrup to mix with seltzer, another culinary endeavor to preserve Gullah Geechee heritage and helps the community pay property taxes on coastal properties.
The star of the meal, of course, is the pot of Wormsloe Carolina Gold collected last year. I scoop it reverently onto my plate, inhaling its roasted nut aroma, imagining I can conjure elements of blood and sweat of so many generations.
As Sarah schools me in the superiority of a double boiler Carolina rice cooker (none of this Instapot nonsense, nuh-uh), she continues to impart the importance of the work at Wormsloe and its potential impact on the way we feed people in the future. And that definitely needs to change: Monocropping and agribusiness have not only poisoned our waterways and made us fat and sick, but the amount of food that is thrown away in industrial and domestic settings is astronomical—as much as 40 percent, from its manufacturing to what’s left on our plates.
“If people know how much food truly costs, they’ll waste less,” she says, scraping the pots with a wooden spoon.
As for heritage and history, how we value and give credit to what we call Southern cooking can never again exclude the influence and efforts of the indigenous and enslaved people who grew the peas, collards, and rice that kept those in power from starving in this scrubby land with its salty water and clay soils. Reconciling the way folks ate then and the way we eat now is both a metaphor and a roadmap towards a South that’s more conscious, more equitable, better nourished, written on every grain.
As Rollen puts it, “Rice is the South.” The sentiment is echoed by the print on Roosevelt’s shirt: “Rice is Life.”
But the story of how and why that’s all true is far more complex. Scholars have written tomes on it, and I have some homework before next year’s harvest: Rice by my main mensch Michael Twitty, Jessica Harris’ High on the Hog (the inspiration for the popular Netflix series), and Sarah’s own book, Social Roots: Reconnecting Lowcountry Foodways with the Landscape, due out next year from UGA Press.
A few hours spent in the field is hardly clout to brag on, but I come to the long wooden table hungry from the day’s work. To satisfy my soul, I vow to better remember the labor put forth in my food, not just those forgotten in the past but those who toil now. I send up prayers for everybody on this lush, generous planet to be well fed and bring a forkful of rice to my mouth slowly, nodding across the table at the people who propagated it.
It is delicious, earthy and full of texture, each grain a tiny miracle.
May your plate forever be full ~ JLL