How does rice get from our fields to your plate?
If you’re like me and you’re fascinated by how things work, then learning about what happens behind the scenes is just as interesting as the show itself.
I wish I could tell you that the rice we grow goes straight from our fields to the plate of risotto you eat here on the farm.
When you eat on the farm, the majority of the vegetables and fruit, and all of the eggs and poultry, are grown, processed, prepared, and eaten on the farm.
But our rice goes through a series of storage and processing steps off-farm before you can eat it.
From the farm…
Rice in the field looks like other grains; it has a husk that covers the actual rice grain. At this stage, rice is called “rough” rice.
At harvest, the combine (the machine that harvests the grain) removes the rough rice from the field and it gets loaded into a truck.
…to the dryer…
Immediately after harvest, rough rice has to be dried so that it can be properly stored. (Humid rough rice risks developing diseases that ruin the product.)
The humidity of the rice grain at harvest is an important factor in determining the quality of the rice because if the rice at harvest is too dry, then much of it will break during processing.
High humidity is an indicator of a plant that has not fully matured.
So, humidity is an important factor in determining the right time to harvest.
The truck from the field goes straight to the drying facility, which is approximately 20 km from the farm.
…to the storage facility…
Once the rough rice has been dried to the proper humidity, it can be stored.
The enormous advantage that grains have over many other agricultural products as they make their way through the processing chain is that they can be more easily stored than things like vegetables, fruits, and milk – which are all perishable and need constant temperature controls to maintain quality.
The drying facility is right next to where we store our rice. The rough rice can stay safely stored for several months.
During storage, insects and rodents can damage the product, as can things like excessive humidity and heat. Most storage facilities have controls against such problems and are built and maintained to avoid them. If there is something like an insect problem, the grain undergoes a chemical treatment, or if it is organic, then the treatment used is a gas like carbon dioxide or nitrogen.
…to the processing facility…
Rough rice needs to be processed to become rice that can be eaten. Because we are not in a major rice-producing region of Italy, and because we need to process our rice in a facility that has organic certification, we have to transport our rice to Northern Italy.
Processing includes a number of basic steps.
The first is a cleaning that removes anything that is not rough rice (other seeds or plant material) from the product.
Then the husks are removed.
Then the rice goes through a milling process that includes a few steps depending upon how brown or white you want your rice. (White rice comes from brown rice; it has just gone through more milling steps.) In this process, the bran and the germ are also removed.
At this point in the process, you have rice that you can cook and eat. It is immediately packaged to conserve the product (even rice has a shelf life!).
…and, finally, back to the farm.
The packaged rice then comes back to the farm, where we store it in a cool, dry place until it is ready to be cooked and eaten.
Stepping into processing…
This is the first year that we have processed our rice. We used to sell the product as rough rice at storage after drying. (The decision to process will be the subject of a future post.)
As we grow the farm, my hope is that we can build some of the infrastructure to do ourselves what we currently do off-farm – drying, storage, and processing.
Because of the quantities of rice – and grains generally – that we produce, it is hard to imagine a future whereby we do everything on-farm. Infrastructure is expensive, labor to maintain infrastructure and processing equipment has its costs, and storing grains properly requires certain skills that we currently do not have.
But having certain on-farm infrastructure would help us manage and control our product more efficiently in certain circumstances.
In the mean time, we rely on off-farm infrastructure that meets our requirements for maintaining a certain quality throughout the process.