Carolina Plantation Rice’s Farm-to-Dinner Plate Mission

Posted: January 1, 2021, 12:00 am

The once-abandoned South Carolina crop has a bright future on the Pee Dee

By Vanessa Wolf

Campbell and Meredith Coxe take an environmentally concious approach to their rice cultivation. Photo courtesy of the Coxes

Campbell Coxe of Carolina Plantation Rice unexpectedly began his farming career in winter 1981.

“I had just gotten out of college and went to work for my grandfather, thinking it was just going to be a summer job,” Campbell says. “I was a geography major who thought he was going to see the world, but here I am, still in Mont Clare, South Carolina.”

Forty years later, Campbell is still working the family land—a journey that wasn’t quite as straightforward as it might sound.

Set on the Pee Dee River outside Darlington, Carolina Plantation Rice occupies an area once known as Plumfield Plantation. The property was founded in 1741 and later bought by Campbell’s ancestors. The land has remained in the family for five generations.

“We were a large cotton farm when I first started working for my grandfather,” Campbell says. “We also grew corn and soybeans—the traditional crops.”

Farming can be an exceptionally challenging vocation, with profitable years followed by devastating ones.

“After about 15 years farming cotton, I did the math,” Campbell says. “There had been some good years and some real bad years. I learned that, on average, I had made roughly $16,000 annually, a little bit below the poverty line. It was a tremendous amount of effort, not to mention the cash outlay. You go to the bank and borrow a million dollars, put it in the dirt, and hope it comes up. The risk was too high to justify the reward.”

Campbell realized he had to make a change if he and his family were going to survive. He needed a product that could be sold directly to the consumer and would not be significantly swayed by the markets.

He found his answer in rice.

Campbell planted his first rice in 1996 after about 15 years farming cotton. Carolina Plantation Rice varieties are popular with local restaurants, which the Coxes hope will continue once businesses recover from the pandemic. Photo by Fred Salley Photography

“I grew my first rice in 1996,” Campbell says. “My cousin in coastal Georgia had been growing some as a hobby—mostly to attract ducks—and he talked me into trying it. We started with 10 acres, and it did well. I’m sort of a novice historian, and I especially enjoy South Carolina history. This was the first place where rice was ever grown in America, and I thought it would be interesting to bring it back to the state.”

Rice was first introduced to the nation in the late 1600s. As explained on the Carolina Plantation Rice website, “A brigantine ship, captained by John Thurber and sailing from the island of Madagascar, encountered a raging storm, perhaps a small hurricane, and put into Charleston Harbor for repairs. With the ship in dry dock, Cpt. Thurber met Henry Woodward, the town’s best-known resident, who had the distinction of being the first English settler in the area. Thurber gave Woodward a bag of rice; some say a peck, others say a bushel. Woodward experimented with the rice, which gave him a good crop. Rice was soon on its way to becoming the area’s main cash crop.”

White planters appropriated the knowledge of rice cultivation, harvesting, and milling from African slaves. By 1720, it had become an important export crop for the state. At first, the low country’s primary rice-growing system was known as the “inland method.” Workers would dam off any creeks that fed into the river, resulting in a human-made reservoir. Rice was planted in adjacent fields, then flooded via a canal connected to the reservoir.

Rice seeds can germinate anaerobically, underwater, while weeds cannot. Thus, controlling the water supply can help minimize the grow of unwanted seedlings and significantly reduce overall labor. The inland method of rice cultivation continued until the Revolutionary War when most of the infrastructure was destroyed. In the late 1700s, planters in the newly sovereign nation turned to a tidal system.

Behind the scenes at Carolina Plantation Rice. Photos by Fred Salley Photography

With the tidal method, the outer banks of swamps were converted into rice fields. Water was allowed to flow in and out as needed via a series of gates, which were timed to open and close daily with the rising and receding tides. Over time, nearly every inch of the Santee Delta— roughly 10,000 acres of tidal swampland—was converted into rice fields. The industry flourished for almost 100 years.

With enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, many former slaves left the plantations. Soon after that, entrepreneurial farmers began to experiment with rice cultivation in the prairie lands of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, where it could be grown more cost-effectively and harvested. Already struggling, South Carolina’s remaining rice plantations then faced the flu pandemic of 1910, followed by a devastating hurricane in late August 1911. The industry was abandoned shortly thereafter.

Rice had never been grown as a cash crop in the Darlington area, but after Campbell’s initial experiment went well, he expanded his efforts, planting 20 acres of basmati rice.

“We decided to plant a highly aromatic long-grain variety,” he says, “which is different than your typical white rice.”

Originally cultivated in the foothills of the Himalayas and commonly served with Indian cuisine, basmati is a long-grain rice best known for its slightly popcorn-like aroma and distinctive nutty flavors. Campbell’s basmati rates at the top of the aromatic scale, which he attributes to the rich soil, agreeable climate, and pure water found on his land. Because there is no tide in Darlington, cultivation involves pumping water out of the Pee Dee into flat, clay-based fields. A series of dikes maintain the levels.

Buoyed by the success of the basmati crop, Campbell expanded his production to include Carolina gold rice—the same grain originally brought to Charles Town in 1685.

“Carolina Gold is a short-grain rice that is used in risotto-type dishes,” he explains. “It’s never been hybridized and dates back to biblical times.”

Behind the scenes at Carolina Plantation Rice. Photos by Fred Salley Photography

Campbell introduced that first harvest to a friend—a chef and restaurateur based in Charleston—with enthusiastic results. It wasn’t long before other upscale eateries came calling.

“Everybody wanted it,” Campbell says. “The first year, I only grew 10 acres, so I couldn’t let any other restaurants have it until I had enough. But they were beating down my door, so the next year I grew two or three times as much. Those early supporters in Charleston were essential to our start.”

His timing was fortuitous in several ways.

“Around that time, people were developing an interest in eating locally grown food,” Campbell says. “Along with the restaurant industry, we were very blessed that the public began seeking out these kinds of products as well. Then, lo and behold, the internet showed up and allowed us to compete with anybody in the world fro out in the middle of Absolutely Nowhere, South Carolina.”

“It brought the world to my swamp,” he adds with a chuckle.

During this same time, Merle Shepard, emeritus professor of entomology at Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center outside Charleston and a good friend of Campbell’s, began work on a new hobby: improving Carolina Gold rice.

In an October 14, 2011, story in “The Post and Courier,” writer Teresa Taylor noted, “Enamored with Carolina Gold but in search of a better rice, Shepard initiated a breeding program in 1998 at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

“He wanted to know if a rice could be developed with the best characteristics of Carolina Gold—long-grain, taste, starch and its striking golden hulls— combined with the genetic strength of a modern-day rice, one that resists diseases and other plights. Gurdev Khush, division head of plant breeding and genetics at the institute, made the first cross. It was between Carolina Gold and IR64, a long-grain rice widely grown in Asia with a shorter stature and ‘lodging’ resistance. Lodging is an often-fatal condition seen in older, tall-growing rice verities, which happens during heavy winds and hard rains.”

Carolina Plantation Rice began on 10 acres outside Darlington. Twenty acres of aromatic rice and then Carolina gold were added. Photo courtesy of the Coxes

The result, Charleston Gold, is now grown at Carolina Plantation Rice as well.

Last year, the company added jasmine rice.

“Most jasmine rice is grown in Thailand and shipped all over the world,” Campbell says. “However, after about a year, the taste and smell of most aromatics tend to fade.”

Campbell grows a new crop every year. Overseas shipping alone takes several months, which results in a freshness that he feels renders his product far more vibrant than anything imported into the United States.

All this success hasn’t come without its challenges. When Campbell first started, there hadn’t been a rice mill built in South Carolina since the 1800s. With a focus on farming, he shipped his raw product 870 miles west to Arkansas to be processed. In May 2008, when diesel fuel prices spiked to a record $4.50 per gallon, the cost of that 1,740-mile trip became unwieldy.

“I was going to go out of business unless I built a mill here,” he says. “We cobbled one together. I had no choice. Building a processing facility is really difficult if you’ve never done it before. Getting all the different machinery to work at the same pace and produce a quality product at the end was incredibly challenging.”

Campbell’s perseverance paid off. The operation eventually expanded to include yellow, white, and red grits, as well as traditional cowpeas. Along the way, Campbell learned the same seed cleaners and elevators could be used in their processing. Other efficiencies soon arose. Campbell now makes gluten-free rice flour from broken rice grains.

Similarly, after being ground between the granite stones of an antique Meadows gristmill, the resulting grits and cornmeal are sifted and separated. With nothing going to waste, the cornmeal is sold by the pound and incorporated into an award-winning fish fry breading.

This environmentally conscious approach is not limited to the raw materials.

Carolina Plantation Rice began on 10 acres outside Darlington. Twenty acres of aromatic rice and then Carolina gold were added. Photo courtesy of the Coxes

Irrigation is the most challenging part of rice cultivation. It’s also the most expensive, as the requisite pumps are powered by electricity. Carolina Plantation Rice was the first company in the state to earn the Green-e certification—a logo that certifies the company buys at least 50% of its total electricity from renewable resources. The energy meets strict consumer and environmental protection guidelines—the highest level of renewable energy standards in the country.

Along the way, farm-to-table chefs featuring Carolina Plantation Rice products have appreciated this commitment to the environment.

While the pandemic has been devastating to the restaurant industry, Campbell hopes the chefs and eateries he once supplied will survive the downturn and reemerge stronger on the other side. In the meantime, the company’s internet sales have recently quadrupled.

These online customers have provided an unexpected upside.

“The feedback we get from our customers is incredible,” Campbell says. “For years, I grew all this cotton, but no one ever called me up and said, ‘I really love this cotton shirt I’ve got on. Thanks so much for growing it.’ While I was proud of that product, it’s combined with other cotton from all over. There really is no commitment to the consumer where he or she knows that this is something that you made with your hands.

“In contrast, I now get letters and testimonials all the time from people who love our products. They’ve done things like knitted my 100% cloth bags together and made throws, tapestries, and window shades and sent them to me. Without a doubt, that’s the most rewarding part of this whole thing.”

Carolina Gold Rice products can be found at many regional retailers or online at the Carolina Plantation Rice website.