Rice has been a major part of Mississippi agriculture only since the 1940s. It was first grown in Mississippi in the early nineteenth century and first grown in the Delta region around 1909. Planters discontinued production in the Delta, possibly because of the difficulty of working with animal power in the sticky clay soil. Modern rice production in Mississippi began in 1948 when Rex Kimbrell, Malcolm James, and Frank Unkel formed a partnership and planted about 300 acres near Greenville, in Washington County. The state’s harvested acreage increased to 5,000 the next year and to 77,000 five years later. The US Department of Agriculture instituted acreage controls following the 1954 crop, and reducing the state’s total harvested acres to 52,000 in 1955. Because Mississippi had no long-term history of rice production, federal acreage controls restricted the state’s production for the next two decades. Following the elimination of controls in 1973, the amount of harvested acreage increased to 108,000 in 1974 and peaked at 335,000 acres in 1981. In 2013 Mississippi had just 122,641 acres of rice production, the lowest in recent history, though production rebounded to 187,000 acres in 2014 and 144,000 in 2015, when Mississippi’s 259 rice farms produced a crop valued at $132 million and the state ranked fifth in US rice production.
Rice production generally requires high average temperatures during the growing season, a plentiful supply of water, a smooth land surface with less than 1 percent slope to facilitate uniform flooding and drainage, and soil with good water-holding capacity. Rice production in Mississippi has been confined almost entirely to the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta basin, particularly Bolivar, Washington, Coahoma, and Sunflower Counties.
Much of Mississippi’s early rice crop was produced by farmers who moved to the Delta from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, but not all of their cultural practices proved adaptable. With the objective of determining the best varieties and cultural practices for the state, the Mississippi State University Delta Branch Experiment Station at Stoneville began a small research program in 1950. In response to efforts by the Delta Council, the Mississippi Rice Growers Association, and the Mississippi Agricultural Experiment Station, the Mississippi legislature in 1958 appropriated funds for a separate rice research project.
When rice production began in Mississippi, the state had no commercial drying, storage, or marketing facilities. Planters thus developed the practice of on-farm drying and storage. Although several commercial rice driers have subsequently been constructed, much of the rice crop is still dried and stored on the farm, providing planters with marketing flexibility. In the early 1970s the Mississippi Rice Growers Association constructed a small rice mill in Cleveland. A few years later both Uncle Ben’s and Pacific International Rice Mills established rice mills in Greenville.
Much of the early success of the rice industry in Mississippi resulted from the leadership of the Mississippi Rice Growers Association, which formed in 1954. In 1981 the legislature created the Mississippi Rice Promotion Board, a grower-funded agency that promotes the industry through research, advertisement, promotions, education, and market development.
- Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: Transformations of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1930 (1986)
- Rex Kimbrell, Rice in Mississippi (1987)
- Mississippi Rice Promotion Board website, rice.msstate.edu
- Statista website, www.statista.com