Rice-farming in Georgia, briefly

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Satellite image from Google Maps, showing outlines of abandoned rice fields in marsh area.

Peter A. Coclanis, in the online New Georgia Encyclopedia, writes:

Rice cultivation began in South Carolina in the late seventeenth century but did not become deeply entrenched until the second or third decade of the eighteenth century. Recent scholars have demonstrated that Africans and African Americans contributed much more than brute labor to the development of the rice industry that developed along coastal South Carolina and, later, coastal Georgia. More specifically, most scholars now believe that much of the technology involved in rice cultivation in this area originated in rice-producing regions in West Africa and was transferred across the Atlantic by slaves.

Coclanis, in his book The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670-1920 (1989, Oxford University Press), argues that low-country plantations were less self-sufficient in foodstuffs than contemporaneous plantations. This meant they needed access to foodstuffs imported from other areas. Thus, Coclanis says, the antebellum low-country transportation system linked production areas with interior and coastal ports, which inhibited the development of nearby market towns and of a broad network of transportation routes (pages 146 and 147).

Rice (Oryza sativa), then, is an Old World crop, which became quite important in the economy of antebellum coastal Georgia. In the satellite image from Google Maps captured from along coastal Georgia and shown above, you can see the outlines of old rice fields. Seen from the edge of the marsh, the fields are less visible, unless you happen to be sighting down the field edge or along a drainage canal.

Nowdays, rice is not grown commercially along the Georgia coast, although the states of Arkansas, California, Louisiana, and Texas have substantial commercial rice agriculture. Rice farms in the modern USA use little hand labor, instead employing specialized equipment to adjust the elevation of the fields to improve conditions for flooding, prepare the seedbeds, and cut and thresh the rice.

So, why not is rice not now grown commercially here in Georgia? You might want to consider such factors as soil fertility, cost of labor (for example, the absence of the plantation economy and slavery), and productivity in pondering this…. Also, most of the rice grown in antebellum days was exported from North America, while much of the rice grown in the USA currently is used here. What effect might this have? Can you compare export costs between Georgia of, say, the early 1800s and today?