Rice is a staple food for a majority of the world's people. Americans, however, traditionally have consumed corn and potatoes rather than rice. It thus may come as a surprise to some Americans that rice has been produced in America for more than three centuries and during that time has accounted for much of the world's trade. Most rice is consumed where it is produced, with little entering foreign markets. American rice has been primarily a product for the international export trade, but changing technology and political environments at home and abroad have made it a volatile commodity.
Henry C. Dethloff has researched many original manuscript documents to gather the history of this American agribusiness that got its start when a British sea captain brought seed from Madagascar to the Carolinas in 1685. Plantations developed, and planters with resources for the complicated, labor-intensive production of rice made it the number-two colonial export cash crop. Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, California, and Mississippi eventually became the primary rice-growing states, and new plant varieties, further mechanization of farming, and improved pumping and irrigation systems reinvigorated the industry at the turn of the century.
In the twentieth century, the rice industry is even more tied to the political vagaries of the world and its markets than before. Events in foreign countries, trade policies, and the federal government's foreign policy have more impact on the industry than the weather in the rice fields.