Arkansas’ Seedbed of Unique Rice Varieties
By DAVID RAMSEY
Chris Isbell’s work to seek out a new market for specialized sake rice is part of a small but growing trend. Some farmers, in the face of lower commodity prices in recent years, are now exploring possibilities for niche markets in specialized products, says Ron Rainey, an extension agricultural economist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
Federal and state researchers have responded with efforts to develop varieties that open new opportunities. In 2018, for example, a new variety of red rice called Scarlett was released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dale Bumpers Center in Stuttgart, Arkansas. “It’s a long-grain variety [with] high levels of anti-oxidant compounds,” says Anna McClung, the Center’s director. “It’s a beautiful looking product on the plate, or it can give color to rice mixes—but it also has a nutritional content that’s desirable.” A microbrewery in Little Rock even produced an English Ale made with Scarlett rice (“The O’Hara”), a “light and easy drinking” brew marketed for its antioxidant benefits.
Across the street from the Bumpers Center, the University of Arkansas Rice Research and Extension Center released Aroma 17, an aromatic Thai-style jasmine rice, last year. This variety has a fluffy texture, a popcorn scent when it cooks, and the ability to flourish in Arkansas, which isn’t well suited to many Thai jasmine varieties.
One farmer Rainey has worked with on marketing unique rice varieties is Tim Ralston of Atkins, Arkansas. Ralston’s ventures began when he and his wife and business partner, Robin, who liked to eat jasmine and basmati rice at home, became frustrated that most of their options at the grocery store were imported. So in 2016 they decided to start growing the varieties themselves.
One of the biggest challenges with niche markets for rice farmers like the Ralstons is that the infrastructure in Arkansas is arranged for commodity farming. Large-scale mills in the state move millions of bushels by the trainload, and they can’t stop production to clean a mill for a small batch of specialty rice.
So when the Ralstons began growing new varieties, they decided to build their own on-farm rice mill, and make it part of a completely integrated operation. They started construction on a mill in 2016, and began production two years later in 2018. Now Ralston Family Farms can go straight from field to market: milling, packaging, and shipping rice directly from their farm.
The Ralstons currently offer thirteen different products, including basmati, jasmine, red, purple, and golden rice, as well as rice grits and traditional white and brown rice. One of their signature products, Nature’s Blend, first came about by accident when multiple varieties cross-pollinated out in the field (rice is self-pollinating, but it can cross-pollinate in rare instances). Nature’s Blend is now harvested as a naturally occurring blend of aromatic purple, red, and brown rice. “We didn’t really know what to do with it,” Ralston says, initially worrying that he would have to just dump it until a chef who partners with them gave it a try and told them they had serendipitously found a wonderful and unique product.
Ralston Family Farms is now the exclusive jasmine rice provider to the high-end meal delivery service, Blue Apron. Ralston also supplies numerous top restaurants and sells packages of rice both online and in more than 2,000 retail stores, including Publix, Kroger, The Fresh Market, and Walmart. Customers have commented that even their traditional long-grain rice has a particularly appealing flavor and texture. Unlike the standard rice in the grocery store that might have a dozen varieties mixed together, the Ralstons grow just one, rice’s equivalent of a single-source coffee.
“It’s fresh and it’s not co-mingled,” Ralston says. “It’s not milled very long before it ends up on the shelf. They’re not just buying the variety of rice. They’re buying the capabilities that we have to trace it back to the field that it came out of.”