“When I was a kid, my parents were growing no rice; all the rice had vanished,” says Hardeeville, South Carolina horticulturist Rollen Chalmers with a soft lilt to his voice. Though the generations-deep Gullah tradition of growing rice had faded by the time Chalmers was growing up, he tapped into his family’s experience later in life.
Chalmers is now what Glenn Roberts, founder of the South Carolina grain company Anson Mills, calls a “quiet force” behind the food revival of the Sea Islands and, in particular, the renewed interest in heirloom rices. Though his face and name are largely absent from documentaries about the subject, Chalmers is responsible for developing many acres of the grain, “from north of Hilton Head Island down into Georgia,” Roberts says. All along the way, he’s been restoring habitat and heritage.
Some of Chalmers’s most important work happens on 30 marshy acres at the Turnbridge Plantation, one of hundreds of 18th-century estates that enabled white Southerners to build vast fortunes off the backbreaking, often deadly labor of enslaved men, women, and children from West Africa’s “rice coast” countries.
In the 1980s, the plantation’s then-new owner rematriated long-lost, long-grained Carolina Gold rice. Today on the property, Chalmers conducts trials on seed varietals and planting methods that can fight off salt intrusion and invasive weeds, as well as provide delicious flavor to eaters. Roberts says these trials are necessary to bring rice-growing into the future. “With sea level rise, we’re going to have to switch to salt-tolerant rice husbandry,” he said. “Already we’re looking at what we can save from these low areas, and it’s not what we’ll be growing there in 10 years.”
Chalmers has also planted other rices around the Lowcountry, including Carolina Gold’s shorter, less-fragrant cousin, Charleston Gold, on the site of the former Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah. Some of those crops are earmarked for local chefs, to boost appreciation of rice culture.
Next year, he’s also hoping to plant trials of upland red bearded rice, the ancient West African variety recently rediscovered in Trinidad.
Civil Eats spoke to Chalmers in late July about re-forging a link to his own rice-growing history, trying to drum up enthusiasm for heritage grains among a sometimes blasé populace, and what’s challenging about growing rice.
What are some hurdles to growing rice in the Lowcountry?
Working out good rice is always a challenge. You have to worry about water. You don’t have access to fresh river water like back in the days my great-grandparents were farming. Back then, you had canals that came from the Savannah River, and everyone had access, with a ditch cut into their property. Now you got to pump water.
Salt’s another problem here. We got freshwater rivers, but my fields are right on the marshes. With Hurricane Matthew [in 2016], two feet of saltwater came across the embankments. Rice will not tolerate the least bit of salt. I usually plant 30 acres at Turnbridge, but the fields are flooded now to get that salt out, so I planted up a seven-acre field this year.
You could have a super good crop, but once rice lays down [in a hurricane], it’s not gonna come back up and it’s hard to harvest, even with modern machines.
And then of course you’ve got live alligators in those fields. They lay out there all day in that fresh water, and there’s water moccasins, copperheads, all these different snakes hanging out catching frogs and mice. When you plant, you got to be real careful and watch where you’re stepping. It’s beautiful in these marshes, rivers, and creeks, but a lot of things lurk in these waters.
And yesterday, we were looking at 105 degrees, really choking, wet-hot heat—real Southern living. This is no joke; growing rice the way I grow it is the real deal, just like it was happening in the 1760s.
Is growing rice something your family did?
Both my parents were always farming, and their parents farmed, too. I pawned that off from them. My mother would tell me how they would grow Carolina Gold rice [when she was younger] and cut it and thrash it and mill it themselves, the old way. It was a whole different deal than what’s going on now.
Kids back then played a big role. Parents would grow it, and kids would go in and cut it, get it in the house, clean it up, and get some of it over to the mill. The mill was right down the road; you would take it to these people to mill it up and give them some of the harvest. But that was long gone before I was born. When I was a kid, all that rice had vanished.
How did you learn to grow it, then?
Mainly I got it from my mother, talking with her, trying to listen to what she was saying. She would tell me the time of year to go in and plant, what areas to look for where the rice grows better. These would be some of your lower areas on the property, but here in the Lowcountry, that’s why it’s called low—everywhere down here is low land.
My parents told me about getting water on the rice and keeping it at a certain level once the rice gets growing, to help stabilize it and for weed control. Certain weeds you got to get rid of to get a crop or they take over the rice field. You got hemp sesbania but the most invasive is alligator weed; it chokes everything out.
(Note: Alligator weed (Alternanthera philoxeroides) is native to South America and entered the U.S. via waterways. It can propagate from stem fragments alone, growing into dense mats of foliage that are almost impossible to eradicate.)
Does using water like that allow you to use fewer chemicals? Are there lessons here for other rice growers?
Absolutely. Other people use chemicals and tend larger fields, but I prefer working with smaller fields—that’s what I’m into. I would like to see more of it. I hope other people would start back growing with smaller rice fields in communities, if possible.
You’ve worked to bring Carolina Gold back. How did it get lost in the first place?
Things get lost because people lose interest. Back when my granddad was farming rice, he got seed from his mother, then he gave it to my parents, and that’s how you kept it. It started vanishing away because my uncles and aunts, nobody was interested in farming rice. They could walk in a store and buy a bag of rice for five bucks. Then all that was erased, all that was gone.
Does working with rice make you feel connected to the past?
I got a small rice field I started on Daufuskie Island five or six years ago, located at the Bloody Point Lighthouse that was built to keep ships coming out of Calibogue Sound from going into the Atlantic Ocean. A friend of mine bought it, put in a small vineyard, and I also replanted some indigo plants and sea island cotton. They grew a lot of cotton back in the 17th century and I wanted to show tourists how sea island cotton is a different, long-strand fiber that got sent back to England to make clothing for emperors.
I can see some Carolina Gold remnants on the embankments on that island. It makes you feel connected to [the past]. My ancestors were growing rice like that. The thing about it, they mainly grew it to live and survive. You would grow that rice, and it would take you through to the next year for food. It’s a real connection there, seeing how my grandparents were growing these different things. I had never seen it ’til I got into doing it myself.
Do you think people are starting to be more interested in bringing traditional varietals back?
Some people my age—59, 60—are getting back into this thing; smart people are taking an interest. People in their 30s and mid-20s, they still think we’re not gonna run out of food; they think because we’ve got farmers and government, we’re gonna have food. But with this pandemic going on, if you own land, you could survive even if you can’t get to grocery stores. I’ve got deer, wild boars, wild turkeys, and I grow grains and rice and sweet potatoes; I can stay on my property and survive.
But some people there’s no convincing. They don’t understand that at high-end restaurants the food they’re getting comes from folks just like us. If you see Carolina Gold on the menu, that’s coming from smaller guys.
We’re losing a lot of land in this area where I’m at. You got development going on: apartments, stores, houses being built. Wild quails are disappearing almost totally here in the South, but when I was a young kid, quails were everywhere. On my property and for my customers, I plant oaks and other trees that’ll produce seed and cover for birds. You bring different kinds of birds to hang out on the marshes when you plant rice on these traditional fields; they come in to get crawfish when you take the water off them.
A little bit of work with the right knowledge, and you can get these lands back up and running. But you have to have revenue to tackle these jobs of restoring and planting. There’s not a whole lot of grant money coming from the USDA because they don’t recognize it’s necessary to go back and do some of these things.
A lot’s been written about B.J. Dennis, who unearthed upland red bearded rice back in 2016. Do you think stories like that help people understand what you’re trying to do?
I think it does help; it gives us recognition with him being a chef. [In 2013], me and my wife hosted chefs here at Turnbridge during a Cook It Raw event. I took those guys deer hunting, alligator hunting, casting for blue crabs, and all this stuff was cooked in the middle of a field in a pit I dug in the ground. We showed them how you can live off the woods and the water out here.
You have to educate people. I talk to quite a few tourists on Daufuskie Island, and most of them have not seen or heard of the rice that I grow. Communicating with these people, coming out and having events like Cook It Raw, that’s the key. But we’ve also got to get the local people back into this, and for that, we need small gathering places where people feel comfortable. It comes back to the one thing it takes—money—to get this kicked off, and we don’t have it.
What kind of climate changes have you seen in the Lowcountry?
You notice that the weather, first thing in the spring, is still a little bit cool longer than it would be years ago. You got to get the soil temperature up right for rice to come up, so maybe you plant a little bit later. The way the weather is now, you don’t get frost till the last of November; years ago you’d get it by the first of October. Now you could get two crops out of rice because you get 80-degree weather in October when you should be looking at 65-degree weather.
But because of hurricane flooding, you may have to go to a hill rice instead of flood rice. With hill rice, you got to do more cultivation [to get rid of weeds], and plant in rows. It’s more work. You’ve got to get more people in and get different equipment to handle it. We started trialing hill rice a year ago, right here [at Turnbridge], just a little handful of seeds to see how they grow with no water. It grows pretty good, produces some rice, but it’s still trial and error. When I grow B.J.’s rice, I’ll try it dry and wet, probably.
If we grow hill rice at Turnbridge, we’ll have to move to a different variety; it probably won’t be Carolina Gold because that loves water and mud. It would change everything. But rice is gonna be here one way or the other.
Top photo: Rollen Chalmers prepping the Wormsloe site. (Photo credit: Sarah Ross)