Shortly after returning from Madagasgar, I was eating drum fish with steamy white rice at Austin’s popular Fonda San Miguel, and I realized my trip had changed my perspective. Most diners would find the fresh fish the most tantalizing item on the plate, but I found the pile of rice enthralling.
For about five years, I’ve been working on Food+City, a multi-media project that explores the movement of food around the world, which means I’m obsessed with the container ships and railroad cars that rumble through our city streets and rail crossings full of frozen meat, cooking oil, corn seed and yes, rice.
In 2013, 196,688 20-foot shipping containers of food and drink passed through Port Houston. These accounted for 17.3 percent of imports and 9 percent of exports, making food and drink the number one import and number four export, and linking the world to our tables.
RICE’S JOURNEY TO THE GULF COAST
The story of rice production in Louisiana and Texas blends geography, technology and immigrant entrepreneurs. Rice arrived in Texas over 150 years ago with the help of railroads, cheap land and true grit.
During the late 1600s and 1700s, ships traveled the slave trading routes from Madagascar to the coast of colonial America, filled not only with slaves but also with rice.
In the 1800s, rice began to move south and west as immigrants settled in the area purchased from the French in 1803. Some moved to what would become the rice-growing areas around Beaumont and began perfecting mills that delivered rice using yet another network — the canal system connected to the Lower Neches River. Rice-filled ships traveled from Beaumont to Houston, connecting them to the railroad network essential for access to international markets.
In 1863, David French, an immigrant from Louisiana, became one of the first large-scale rice growers to plant near Beaumont, sending his crops to Joseph Eloi Broussard’s Beaumont Rice Mill — one of the first in Texas.
NEW PEOPLE AND NEW TECHNOLOGIES
In 1881, upon the completion of the Louisiana Western Railroad (LWR), Louisiana businessmen formed the Southwestern Immigration Company to encourage Midwestern entrepreneurs to migrate to Texas and Louisiana, bringing experience and technology from their wheat businesses.
These entrepreneurs were discouraged by poor economic conditions and weather in their native states, and encouraged by cheap land and an expanding network in the Southeast. In 1885, Southern Pacific Railroad connected the LWR to the southern transcontinental railroad.
Milling wheat has plenty in common with milling rice. But the real breakthrough brought by those Midwesterners was the use of rollers, which they had seen in Europe and later Philadelphia. Before the 1890s, millers produced flour in gristmills by grinding grains between two stones. Now, rollers enabled mills to produce more flour and eschew the process of “dressing” millstones, contributing to the glut of processed rice.
Even by 1882, however, too much rice for too few consumers caused prices to collapse, and railroads began to slow their transport of the grain. Companies in Texas and Louisiana failed or consolidated.
Adding to the increase in production was the promotion of Japanese rice by the Houston Chamber of Commerce. Japanese rice farmers brought Japanese rice seed to Louisiana and Texas in the early 1900s. This variety was more productive than the existing strains, and Japanese families eventually cultivated much of the rice-growing area around the Texas Gulf Coast. This excess capacity contributed to consolidation of the rice industry. In 1911, more than 30 mills merged to form the Louisiana State Milling Company. Houston’s Riceland eventually merged with the Louisiana State Milling Company to form Riviana, which was then swallowed up by the world’s largest rice trader and miller, Madrid-based Ebro Foods.
THE MODERN SUPPLY CHAIN
While the U.S. produces only 2 percent of the world’s rice, it exports about 10 percent of the rice traded on the global market. At least five Texas ports ship rice: Houston, Galveston, Beaumont, Orange and the Brazos River Navigation District. The rice flowing through these ports is not only grown in Texas but also in California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Arkansas. Rice arriving in the U.S. through Texas’ ports comes primarily from Asia, and is milled in Texas before being shipped around the globe.
The rice logistics system is just one part of the complex and sophisticated food supply chain. Large investments in research and technology have developed this supply chain to a level that enables shippers to pinpoint where their rice is at any given moment, anywhere around the world.
Cargo rice is a blend of two types: white rice and paddy rice, which is unprocessed and still covered by glumes — the leaves that cover each grain. This blend provides stability in transit. The paddy rice expands, shedding its glumes and creating interstitial spaces that allow the grains to breathe instead of glomming onto each other and rotting. The containers keep the rice dry, allowing it to keep for up to a year. If a container springs even a tiny leak, the rice won’t last longer than 20 days.
A group of German marine transport insurers provides the Transport Information Service with the technical specifications for safe transport. Among the risks are the potential for toxicity, odor, biotic activity and even spontaneous combustion. On a hot day a container could overheat such that the fermentation and expansion of the grains leads to a rice storm.
Rice travels on ships as break bulk shipments or in containers. Until Malcom McLean popularized the idea of shipping materials in bulk containers in the 1950s, almost all food commodities travelled as break bulk cargo, requiring plenty of time, sweat and hulk to load and unload.
By the 1980s, McLean’s containers had transformed trade. Food could be shipped faster and cheaper, as ships could move larger amounts from further away, for less money. Container shipping created today’s global food economy, where we can add ingredients at the cheapest prices from places where they are in season.
In some cases, rice travels to Houston in coffee containers. These have added ventilation holes and carry bulk coffee in specially designed liners that minimize the accumulation of moisture maximize airflow. These containers work well for rice, which requires the same vigilance against moisture.
What does this supply chain look like in coming years? With the worldwide growth of commodity rice production, Texas rice farmers may find hope in the niche markets that attract foodies and nutrition-conscious consumers. Maybe Texas rice farmers will transform the coastal wetlands into rice fields and fill smaller trucks with specialty rice. Maybe large food retailers and wholesalers will reinvent the break bulk culture with more regionalized deliveries. Maybe the future supply chain will include shipments of rice from a revived industry in Madagascar. Maybe food history will repeat itself.
A version of this article originally appeared in Sugar & Rice #4: Road Trips
Robyn Metcalfe is the Director of Food + City at the School of Human Ecology, College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.