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Do You Know Where Your Rice Comes From?

  1. From field to fork

    From field to fork

    The next time you take a bite of rice, spare a moment to think of how much work went into getting those little grains onto your plate. Rice is one of world’s most important crops: Billions of people around the world consume hundreds of varieties of rice every day in everything from baby food to beer (in fact, Anheuser-Busch is the largest buyer of rice in the U.S.). Since 1970 per capita consumption in the U.S. alone has tripled, to about 26 pounds annually, and last year Americans consumed more than $3 billion of the starch, according to Euromonitor International. Whatever form it takes, getting all that rice to the supermarket shelves requires enormous coordination, involving more than a dozen steps, from farming to trucking to packaging.

    Click here to see how U.S. rice gets from field to fork.
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  2. Step 1: Buy rice seeds

    Step 1: Buy rice seeds

    There are many hundreds of rice varieties with a range of disease resistances and grain yield potential. Seed is sold by authorized seed retailers, such as Cache River Valley Seed, Jimmy Sanders, and Dulaney Seed. The U.S. mostly plants pure-line varieties, but hybrid rice seeds, first developed in China in the 1970s, have been gaining in popularity, as they produce greater yields and have stronger disease resistance. The largest hybrid seed supplier in the U.S. is RiceTec in Alvin, Tex. A 45-lb. bag of white, long-grain rice can cost around $40, according to seed retailer Jimmy Sanders.
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  3. Step 2: Seeding

    Step 2: Seeding

    Farmers can drill the rice seed into dry fields with tractors. Another method is aerial sowing, in which airplanes—usually operated by local aerial application companies—drop seeds onto flooded fields. Except for producers in parts of southwest Louisiana and Texas, most in the South drill seed, while California producers primarily seed by air. Planting in Texas and southwest Louisiana typically begins in early March, while the bulk of the crop in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and northern Louisiana is planted in April, and California plants from late April through mid-May, according to the U.S. Agriculture Dept.
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  4. Step 3: Flood and grow

    Step 3: Flood and grow

    Flooding of rice fields, achieved with dams and levees, helps prevent the growth of certain weeds and allows plants to achieve maximum physiological production (although farmers must also control fungal growth), according to Terry Siebenmorgen, professor and director of the University of Arkansas Rice Processing Program. Plants are allowed to grow in flooded fields over the next few months (about 120 days). Many farmers continuously flood the fields until about two weeks before harvest, which happens in late summer to early fall.
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  5. Step 4: Drain fields

    Step 4: Drain fields

    In order to use large harvesting equipment, farmers must drain the fields before harvest. The water can be redirected and used in other fields, such as for soybean production. Rice is typically harvested about one month after flowering, when the grain moisture content is optimal: about 20 percent.
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  6. Step 5: Harvest and clean kernels

    Step 5: Harvest and clean kernels

    Peak harvest season in the U.S. is August through October. Farmers harvest rice kernels using a machine called a combine harvester, which cuts the stalks and separates the kernels. Debris is removed.
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  7. Step 6: Dry kernels

    Step 6: Dry kernels

    Kernels must be dried within one to two days of harvesting. Farmers transport the kernels on large vehicles, such as semitrailer trucks, to nearby drying facilities, which might be owned by rice farmer cooperatives such as Producers Rice Mill and Riceland Foods or such commercial mills as Riviana Foods. Machines blow warm air across the kernels in several stages until the moisture content is about 12.5 percent, which is suitable for storage. Drying too quickly will cause the grain to crack and break apart during milling; broken kernels are removed after milling, as these kernels do not process the same as whole kernels and degrade the appearance of samples. Drying takes two to three days in commercial driers but can take up to weeks in on-farm, bin driers.
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  8. Step 7: Store rice

    Step 7: Store rice

    After drying, the rice is moved to metal or concrete bins and silos in storage facilities at the same facility where it was dried, or one near the mills. Often, the silos are also owned by the cooperatives and mills. Riceland Foods, for example, can store 103 million bushels (2.1 million metric tons) of grain, including rice. The rice is graded and maintained in a cool, dry environment until manufacturers need to process it.
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  9. Step 8: Clean, hull, and mill

    Step 8: Clean, hull, and mill

    Processing happens year-round, turning rough rice into what consumers see in supermarkets. The particular steps vary, depending on the kind of rice produced. For parboiled rice, the grain is first soaked, then steamed in a pressure vessel—a process that millers say drives nutrients from the bran into the grain interior. Whether parboiled or not, machines, often owned by rice cooperatives and mills, remove remaining debris and hull the rice, separating kernels from the inedible husk. Once hulled, brown rice is produced, which still has the bran layers intact. To produce white rice, brown rice is milled to remove the bran and embryo, and the rice is polished to brighten it. Removing the bran, which contains oils, improves the shelf life.
  10. Step 9: Enrich

    Step 9: Enrich

    Brown rice and parboiled rice retain many nutrients, but stripping the bran layer removes many nutrients from white rice. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has requirements for the levels of thiamin, iron, niacin, and folic acid in raw rice, according to American Rice. To meet requirements, white rice is enriched with a coating of such nutrients as B vitamins, thiamin, niacin, and iron. Folic acid is also added to prevent birth defects, such as spina bifida.
  11. Step 10: Instantize (optional)

    Step 10: Instantize (optional)

    The manufacturer can then cook, cool, and dehydrate the enriched rice to produce instant rice. The precooked rice is rehydrated by the consumer during cooking and is typically ready to serve in five to 10 minutes, compared with 20 minutes for regular rice.

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  12. Step 11: Package

    Step 11: Package

    Rice is typically packaged at the same location where it was milled or at a nearby facility. Prior to packaging, computer-driven optical sorters inspect individual kernels in rice streams to remove discolored grains. Machines weigh and package the rice in the same bags and boxes that will arrive on supermarket shelves. Most rice in the U.S. is packaged in Arkansas and the Memphis area, according to Alfredo Gomez, Riviana’s senior business manager for domestic rice.
  13. Step 12: Supermarkets order

    Step 12: Supermarkets order

    Grocery retailers can order rice from manufacturers or through brokers such as Acosta. Retailers can also order through wholesalers such as C&S Wholesale Grocers, the country’s largest food wholesaler, which would place the order to brokers on their behalf. SuperValu, which owns such supermarket chains as Save-A-Lot, Shaw’s, and Albertsons, orders rice on an as-needed basis year-round, according to spokesman Michael Siemienas.
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  14. Step 13: Transportation

    Step 13: Transportation

    Manufacturers can hire motor carriers or transportation companies to transport the rice, often by road or rail, to regional distribution centers. The centers are often operated by third-party logistics companies, such as Saddle Creek (which works with Riviana), wholesalers, or retailers with supply-chain operations (such as SuperValu).
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  15. Step 14: Warehousing

    Step 14: Warehousing

    At the distribution centers, the bulk shipments are broken down into quantities that will be delivered to the stores. The rice is stored here, then delivered to the stores with other products.
  16. Step 15: Pricing

    Step 15: Pricing

    Many factors affect retail prices, including wholesale prices, energy costs, packaging, labor, and other operating expenses. SuperValu’s Siemienas says an increase in commodity prices does not directly correlate with an increase in consumer prices as retailers try to remain competitive. Retailers may also increase orders if they foresee a shortage due to a bad growing season or other factors, which can affect supply and price, he adds. The average retail price of uncooked, long-grain white rice increased to about $0.75 per pound in February, from $0.71 in November 2010, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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  17. Step 16: To the consumer

    Step 16: To the consumer

    Americans consume about 26 pounds per capita annually. Mahatma Rice (owned by Riviana) is the best-selling brand in the country, followed by Uncle Ben’s (Mars), Canilla (Goya Foods), Carolina (Riviana), and Rice-A-Roni (PepsiCo), according to the USA Rice Federation.
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  18. Other routes: Export

    Other routes: Export

    The U.S. exports more than 40 percent of the rice it produces. At the mills, both rough and milled rice are packaged for barges and shipped overseas. Except for government-procured rice (for donations, school lunches, etc.), there is no requirement that rice be inspected by the USDA for domestic sales or export, according to the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration. Most manufacturers have their own procedures for checking quality. In 2009, some 2.99 million metric tons of U.S. rice was exported to foreign markets, according to the USA Rice Federation.
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  19. Other routes: More uses for rice

    Other routes: More uses for rice

    Another major application for rice is in beer production. In fact, Anheuser-Busch is the largest single buyer of U.S. rice, purchasing more than 9 percent of domestic shipments, according to the USA Rice Federation. Rice can also be processed for use in flour, cereals, snack foods, and baby food. Broken rice is often used in pet food and animal feed.
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  20. Byproducts: Sell to manufacturers

    Byproducts: Sell to manufacturers

    The mills sell the byproducts removed during processing, such as the bran and husk, to other manufacturers. The stalks and husks can be sold to energy companies, and Riviana’s Alfredo Gomez adds that pharmaceutical makers are among the buyers of bran.
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