Today I was reading a booklet distributed by the Louisiana State Rice Milling Co., Inc.  It brought to mind the rice fields I saw when I was young.  The cultivation of rice began in Vermilion Parish in the early 1780s.  In those days, seed was broadcast by hand by the farmer in much the same way as it was planted in the Orient, and shovels were used to build the levees necessary to flood the fields in sections, and the crop was harvested by cutting the stalks with a blade and binding them into bundles or "shocks."  The grains were flailed from the stalks.  I'm not sure how the hulls were removed, but they were probably rubbed off.  Indigo plants that had grown with rice had to be pulled by hand before they went to seed.

Methods changed by the time I was a child, and production had increased.  The small towns in Vermilion Parish were kind of like little islands lying in an ocean of rice fields, vivid green while it was growing  and buttery yellow when ripe and ready for harvest.  The farmers broadcast the seed rice from a mule-drawn wagon.  Before the days of the combine, the crop was still harvested by hand, and bound into shocks to dry in the sun, but now a threshing machine was used.  It was still necessary to pull indigo plants by hand, though.  

The threshed grain was sacked and taken to the rice mill, where the hulls were removed.   I spoke tonight to an old friend, "Snow" Noel (who is still planting rice, by the way) and he told me that his family always cut their rice crop on September 15th.  Today's rice farmer uses an airplane to plant his rice crop and to apply fertilizer and other chemicals.  And when the rice is harvested, instead of being sun-dried, it is taken to a rice dryer where it is dried and stored until it is sold.

The first rice field I ever saw was that of my Paran Felix Trahan.  That was the time the whole neighborhood picknicked in the shade of the trees by the canal while the men cut the levee to drain the field.  I also went once with Mr. Bud Fletcher's family to what they called the "rice camp" and while he and his harvest crew took care of the work in the fields, Miz Maude and us kids did the housework and cooked huge meals for everybody.  That was when I was first introduced to "corn cakes."  These were little cornbread cakes cooked on a cast iron griddle on a wood-burning stove. 
In Perry, when I rode the school bus out to spend a weekend at the Noel's farm or to visit with Mr. Eraste Hebert's children or with Wilda Gaspard, I thought those bundles of rice standing in the fields like little short, fat soldiers were so pretty!  Once I went with the Noel family to Charenton, to help the oldest son, "Nome."  He had put in a crop and was irrigating it with water from the Bayou Teche.   We all went swimming one evening at the pump (I think they called it the "floom."), and the rushing water knocked me off my feet.  I probably would have drowned if one of the boys had not hauled me out.  I can't remember if it was "Snow" or "Blackie" or "Bray."  I never told my mother about this, because I was afraid she would not allow me to go again.

The first crawfish boil I ever went to was out at the Noel's farm.  When the levee was cut to drain the field, everyone stood ready to catch the crawfish as they came gushing out with the water.  I helped by holding a sack open, but the boys picked up those mudbugs bare-handed!   The sacks of crawfish were loaded behind the saddles of the horses we were riding, and we had a really big feast that evening.

Today, farmers harvest their rice crops earlier, some even planting two crops successfully.  Others re-flood their fields after the rice is harvested, and their second crop is crawfish.  It is a common sight, when riding along a country road, to see crawfish traps set out in an old rice field.  Sometimes you get to see the farmer, either in hipboots or in a skiff, gathering crawfish from his traps.  Of course, men fish for crawfish in the Atchafalaya Basin, too.  What started off as a little "lagniappe" for the rice farmer has turned into an industry in its own right.  

In recent years, there has been an influx of crawfish imported from China and other places, and they cost less than the local ones, but any real Cajun can tell the difference just by tasting.  Ours are better!

12 August 2001

Copyright © 2001 Aline T. Meaux, Abbeville, LA

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