Oryza Sativa. In other words, rice. While its Latin name is relatively new to me, rice is not, and far from it. For nearly one hundred years, my family has associated with that crop which has sustained us, our nation, and the world. From men sewing bags of the grain decades ago to myself operating a multi-ton bankout wagon, rice drives the lives year round of its farmers. We all know how it comes to us in the store; bagged and white. With a little bit of water and heat, it becomes fluffy and starchy, hearty and filling. But, rice is best known to me from green to grain.
In the winter, when the mornings are dark and bitter, when rice no longer grows, it still dictates the world around it. Fields are flooded to decompose the straw and to allow for the skies filled with wings of fowl to settle into comfort on their annual journey to warmer lands. Such geese, ducks, herons, sandpipers, swans, and the like all make their home for a time amongst last year’s straw and water. Many times I remember walking those fields with my father and looking for a good flock to make dinner. In that way, I suppose, rice was feeding us without even being on our plate.
In spring, when the waters have washed away, the anticipation of rice begins. Fields are tilled, fertilized, and flooded again. A sight to behold are the crop dusters who fly so close to the ground they almost touch the tules, and with them they bring grain. One seed to become a plant, then to become grain once again in multitude. A busy time for all, Spring lasts but for a while to eventually subside into a gentle hum of Summer and serenity.
Summer is a farmer’s friend when patience dictates their lives in a restful way. The farmer ventures out to their field every few days to see their livelihood growing green and growing fast. The water which keeps the rice cool, fed, and pest free is checked like Goldilocks and her porridge. Too little, and the rice will not grow. Too much, and the rice will drown. Just right, and the green will fill the horizon until Autumn calls and the water is pulled.
Fall is harvest and harvest is Fall. Those words are synonymous to the farmer. When the rice is golden and heavy, sometimes near flat in the fields from its weight, the harvest begins. Machinery is moved from its storage, those great beasts of steel, with the harvester mightiest of all. Down the levee it rides, picking, churning, and collecting. The bankout rides like a stallion, over the checks swift to transport the grain from the harvester away to the trailers. Dried, milled, and packaged to you, rice completes its journey anew. But, the farmer remains, and the old wheel turns round again. The rice straw which had been scattered where it grew by the harvester is now chopped, chiseled, and flooded once more in preparation for next year’s crop, for next year’s migration, and next year’s cycle again.
Author: Michael Terry is a student of History and Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
For another story about cultivated food plants, see “Yam.”