Story and photos by Derek Albert
EUNICE – From rural northern St. Landry Parish, there is something growing. Yes, there are soybean and rice fields ready to be harvested. But there’s something else. if you listen closely, you may be able to hear the growing interest into a new more healthful rice. The man behind it, Mike Fruge, wants you—and everyone else--to hear about it too.
Fruge farms about 1,400 acres of rice, crawfish and soybeans in St. Landry and Evangeline Parishes. In 2019, he planted a new emerging rice variety developed by the LSU AgCenter, Frontière. This variety—the creation of the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station’s molecular geneticist Herry Utomo and biotechnologist Ida Wenefrida--has become the trademark product of Parish Rice. Though Fruge said his impetus to package and sell Parish Rice was a way to get his own brand of rice onto grocers’ shelves, he knew there was something special with Frontière. In its development, Frontière was formulated to have a higher protein content than typical rice varieties. This, in turn, offers its consumers a 53 percent protein increase and a lower glycemic index rating.
“I felt we had something unique with high-protein,” Fruge said. “I didn’t know how different, at the time, because we didn’t know about the glycemic value. When we found that out, we really realized we had something unique.”
The health benefits are why Utomo says Frontière is a game changer for the rice industry.
“In order to serve more diverse market needs, we are now expanding our breeding efforts to include other rice types aimed to increase yield potential while keeping the GI score low,” Utomo said. “This is a game changer…not only for people with diabetes, but also for people with pre-diabetes who need to prevent the condition from progressing into a full stage of diabetes.”
Fruge said he saw the health benefits as a strong selling point when pondering how he would market his own brand of rice.
“I felt like it would give people the opportunity to eat rice again,” he said. “That is something that really excites me. That’s the most joyful, prideful part of all of this—the fact that I’m getting more people to eat rice.”
Fruge is juggling the responsibilities of farming and overseeing the retail side of the operation. In fact, what is arguably the busiest, most time-sensitive time of year for a rice farmer—harvesting--was interrupted during the first weekend in August with a food distributor trade show in New Orleans where Fruge featured Parish Rice for potential buyers such as restaurant owners and food service professionals. It is with efforts like these Fruge hopes he can get the word out about the low-GI, high-protein benefits of consuming Parish Rice.
“We are steadily growing,” he said. “We have a long way to go. We have more people that we need to reach.”
While Fruge said his operation does deliver directly to some local stores in and around Acadiana, his primary way of getting Parish Rice onto grocery store shelves is through distributors. Increasing consumer demand for Parish Rice has helped to expand availability to grocery stores throughout the Gulf Coast. According to the Parish Rice Web site, the Louisiana-grown product can be found on store shelves from Houston to the Florida panhandle. But he admits, marketing, promoting and selling his unique brand has offered a new set of challenges that farming rice could not have prepared him for.
“The retail part of this business is very challenging,” Fruge said while standing next to pallets of packaged Parish Rice. “It’s still new to me. I’m still learning a lot.”
The process of milling Parish Rice is not different from any other variety on the market, but it does require a facility that can make sure there is no other variety that makes it into each bag of Parish Rice. Fruge said he has built a great relationship with Falcon Rice Mill in Crowley.
“Falcon does all my milling and packaging,” Fruge said. “They are really great people. They are easy to work with. With them being a smaller volume, domestic mill, it’s easier for them to keep it separate, because they are set up for that.”
Before entering into the new endeavor of growing and selling Parish Rice, Fruge was learning the ropes of the rice industry from his father. The younger Fruge earned a degree in agronomy from LSU and after graduating in 2004, began a 1-year career with Horizon Ag—a company whose footprint in agriculture relies heavily on rice seed sales. Fruge says he could not find the balance of farming rice and promoting his product without the help of family. He farms 1,400 acres of rice in rotation with crawfish—and some soybeans—alongside his father, Raymond.
“My dad really helps out a lot,” said the younger Fruge. “I am really able to get away from the farm because of him. He can take care of things and keep things going.”
Fruge says this year’s crop that is ready for harvesting looks good, but constant late summer rains have made getting this year’s crop out of the fields and into trucks an arduous task.
“We went 11 straight days of getting rain. We had a pretty good run on Friday and Saturday, and got a really big rain yesterday,” Fruge said on Monday, August 8.
Daily operations at the Fruge homestead are carefully orchestrated by Fruge’s wife, Sarah, who works as an optometrist. Mike and Sarah are parents to three children with another Fruge on the way. Fruge borrows a sentiment from a fellow farmer when describing how Sarah does her part to make the Fruge family farm flourish.
“He said something that really stuck with me,” Fruge said. “He said his wife is growing the most important crop—and that is his children. That is 100 percent true. I can’t help out a lot because of the hours we put in--especially in times like this. Sarah does a lot for our kids.”
It’s obvious that Fruge proudly stands behind Parish Rice, but he is not only raising the alarm to his brand, but he is also a strong advocate for the Louisiana rice industry, as a whole. He related part of his sales tactic that he often uses at food trade shows.
“Obviously, I want them to buy Parish Rice, but if it’s not for them, that’s fine. I tell them, ‘Just make sure you know where it is coming from—particularly if it’s from Louisiana.’ We pride ourselves in having a better-quality rice in the Mid-South. I really push for people to buy Louisiana rice.”
Though rice may be the driving force behind the Fruges’ operation, crawfish has grown into a sustaining secondary part of the farm, as well. The father-son duo added crawfish to their agricultural arsenal two years ago. The spring 2022 crawfish season proved to be disappointing for crawfishermen as catches were lower than usual. This was no different for the Fruges.
“It was not a really great year,” Fruge said reflectively. “We caught crawfish, but our costs were up exponentially…labor, gas, bait, everything. We did not catch the volume we really needed to cover all that. It wasn’t a banner year by any means.”
If you have not already tried Parish Rice and would like to get your hands on some, the Parish Rice Web site offers a locator map with more than 100 store locations where you can stop in and grab some on your next grocery run. Two of the more notable retailers selling Parish Rice are Rouse’s Markets, whose management has built their 65-store grocery empire on Louisiana-sourced products, and H.E.B. of Texas. For those who do not live in Louisiana or near the Gulf Coast region, the Web site also offers online purchasing opportunities.
“I’ve always known that we had much higher rice consumption on the Gulf Coast, particularly in South Louisiana,” he said. “What surprised me the most was the interest (in rice) around the country. We have shipped rice, via our Web site sales, to all 50 states.”
What’s in store for the future of Parish Rice? The answer to that question harkens back to the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station where Utomo and Wenefida are working to develop a successor to Frontière that boasts an even higher protein content. While Utomo and Wenefrida spent seven years developing the Frontière variety, Utomo said there are recently identified shortcuts that can be integrated into breeding techniques to speed the breeding process.
“A specific selection index with three key determinants is being used in low-GI selection schemes in parallel to high-protein screening,” Utomo said.
Fruge said some of Frontière’s characteristics will have to be maintained in the yet-to-be-released rice variety.
“We do not want to jeopardize the quality—the grain quality and the cooking quality,” Fruge said.” This variety, Frontière, is derived from Cypress which set the gold standard for rice quality in the United States. This variety (Frontière) does have very good milling, cooking quality, appearance, texture and we want to make sure we sustain that quality.”