CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Rice, the commodity that once made South Carolina one of the richest colonies in British colonial North America, is being harvested again the coast just outside Charleston.
The three-day rice harvest is underway at Middleton Place, a plantation and national historic site on the Ashley River.
For about a decade now, the plantation has planted and harvested rice from a quarter-acre field using the same methods used in colonial times — planting by hand and using a curved blade called a rice hook to harvest.
"By growing and harvesting our Carolina Gold rice, which dates back to 1780, it gives folks a little glimpse of the past. You have to squint a little bit, and then you start to understand the economics" of the rice culture, said Bob Sherman, a historic interpreter at the plantation.
This year's harvest, which concludes Saturday, coincides with the Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum.
The forum was developed in part by artist Jonathan Green whose colorful paintings of the Gullah culture of sea island slaves are in collections worldwide. It features three days of events focusing on the significance of rice in colonial times and how rice, class, art and history still influence the Southeast today.
As the rice culture took hold bringing immense wealth to planters, it required more and more slaves.
"Here in the South we think of cotton. But for every worker you need on a cotton plantation, you need 10 on a rice plantation. This is extremely labor intensive," said Jeff Neale, another interpreter at Middleton who on Friday worked under a warm sun with a rice hook cutting down the stalks heavy with rice grains.
South Carolina, in 1700, exported about 12,000 pounds of rice.
"In 1770, they will export 83 million pounds. As the rice production grows, the number of slaves grows," he said. By 1860, production is 140 million pounds.
This year's Middleton crop was planted on May 16.
There were two ways in colonial times that slaves planted rice.
"One method was the heel-toe method. They would go out barefoot and make a hole with their toe, put some seed in it and take their heel and press it down, move up a few inches and do it again," Neale said.
Middleton uses the second method, a harrower with spikes in it that makes a row with small holes. The seed is dropped in and then tapped down with a hoe.
The crop at Middleton will be about 400 pounds and "you might get at retail $4,000," Sherman said.
Some of the rice will stay at Middleton where school children this fall will get to experience the rice culture by winnowing the rice, removing the hull from the grain. Some will be shared with other historic sites in the area for their education programs.
"It's worth far more as a teaching tool and a demonstration tool than it is a food crop," Sherman said.
Middleton Place Plantation: https://www.middletonplace.org
Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum: http://www.lowcountryriceculture.org/RiceForum2013.html