Story and Photos by Bruce Schultz
PRAIRIE RONDE - A New Orleans woman and a farmer from Mexico are unlikely business partners, but they have set out on a venture to grow, mill and sell their own rice raised on a St. Landry Parish farm.
“This farm has been a lot of things,” said Beth James, referring to the 1,100-acre farm started by her father, the late Laddie James.
He farmed row crops but he also raised prawns, redfish, catfish and frogs on the 1,100 acres in St. Landry Parish. Remains of his ventures can be seen throughout the property, including a walled area that was used to contain frogs. Since he was a road builder, Laddie James built asphalt thoroughfares on the tops of many of the levees so the enterprise could be inspected by car. He built an extensive irrigation system using his engineering expertise.
Laddie James owned a road construction company, Prairie Construction Co., based in Opelousas.
“He started the company with a pickup truck, two shovels and a $400 loan from my mother,” Beth said.
She said rice has been grown on the farm for more than 30 years, but it wasn’t harvested until recently. “We weren’t doing it for anything other than to feed the crawfish,” she said.
Beth and Rolando’s paths to becoming rice farmers are full of twists.
In a previous life, Beth was a menswear designer for New York-based clothing company Nautica, and she traveled extensively overseas to supervise the manufacturing operations. “When I look back on all that, I don’t know how I did it.”
Later, she worked for Cox Communications when the corporation first started getting into the internet business.
Beth’s husband, Dave Malone, is a guitarist and songwriter who performed with the New Orleans band, The Radiators.
Rolando’s journey began in 1981, when the James family bought a house in San Miguel Allende, Mexico. His mother was the James’ housekeeper, and Laddie James became a mentor to Rolando, recognizing his ambition and eagerness to learn.
“Laddie James is the one who brought me here,” Rolando recalled. “I was told I would be working on the farm.”
Beth said Rolando has kept the farm going.
“Rolando has been here 29 years. He’s been through the evolution of this farm,” Beth said. “He definitely put in the hard work, and quality work. We’re careful to take care of this land. Rolando is even more careful than my father.”
The Natural Resources Conservation Service has been working with James Farms in a program to improve water quality of Bayou Mallet, and Rolando was recognized by the NRCS for his efforts at an award ceremony recently in Dallas.
After her father died in 2005, Beth had to decide what to do with the land. Rolando told her he wanted to grow rice. “He said, ‘I want to be a rice farmer, and I want to make money.’ Next thing I knew, he was in the rice business. He has to do all the work, and he has to take all the risk.”
The first year, Rolando had a good crop, but nowhere to store it, forcing him to sell the rice as soon as it was harvested instead of waiting for a better price.
Beth said the solution seemed obvious to build a set of bins with drying capability.
“I was out here more and more, and I was trying to figure out what to do to grow this business.”
Beth said she was driving the combine to cut the rice last year, and a thought came to her. “When you’re in a combine, you have a lot of time to think. I always say it was dad reaching down and striking me on top of the head.”
The thought that struck her was to mill the rice themselves, and sell it directly to consumers. Doing that would require a rice mill.
She remembered thinking to herself, “If we’re going to do this, let’s try to achieve the best quality we can.”
The rice Rolando had grown tested superior, she said, and it seemed obvious that the quality aspect could be a major selling point. For Beth, that meant having control over every aspect of production, so installing a rice mill seemed logical."
“As part of the constant desire to evolve, we wanted to develop our products to take them from our farm to the kitchen table. I believe that many consumers want to know where their food comes from. We plant a single variety of rice which cooks more evenly and we can control the great quality from the field to the consumer through our process."
She approached mill manufacturer, ZaccariaUSA, and within a few months, the company installed a new Zaccaria ZX-6 mill on the James Farms to sort, husk and mill about 1,000 pounds of rice an hour.
She has also setup a full lab with an MBZ-2 whiteness meter to verify that she is milling to an accurate degree by giving her a numerical value for the whiteness, transparency, and polish of the white rice kernel. She also bought a small mill that uses a 100-gram sample to determine milling quality.
The operation is not ready to start milling rice for other producers. “We’re not there yet.”
Their final product is Prairie Ronde Rice, in 2-pound colorful resealable packages with either a chicken or a pig playing an accordion.
Beth sells rice at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market in New Orleans on Saturdays. It’s also available at Benny’s Grocery in Opelousas, in Baton Rouge at Alexander's Highland Market and Calandro's, and in Mandeville at Nuccio’s Louisiana Kitchen.
James Farms rice is used at Carmo Restaurant on Julia Street in New Orleans. She’s also hopes to develop other major restaurants in New Orleans as customers.
Meanwhile, Rolando is working on the farm to raise the crop.
They avoid using pesticides, although they are not trying to obtain organic status.
Rolando had 110 acres of CL111 water planted on April 6. He said he wanted to plant sooner but rains kept nearby bayous too high to drain the fields. “The water stayed up for more than a week.”
He will plant an additional 100 acres in mid-April.
He wanted to try another variety but decided to stick with CL111 for the entire farm. “We still have some 111 in the dryer and I didn’t want to mix it up.”
He laser-leveled about 200 acres of land this year for this year’s crop.
Dr. Johnny Saichuk, retired LSU AgCenter rice specialist now working with Ducks Unlimited, said he encouraged Beth and Rolando to laser-level the fields. “That was the one of the first things I had told him, to increase yields they needed to improve their irrigation efficiency.”
Saichuk said he has been working with the James Farms to help them improve production. “They’ve got a lot of potential yet to be realized. I think the marketing is their biggest challenge.”
The James Farms has a website, www.prairieronderice.com.