A fourth generation rice farmer who's doing things right.
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
Photos by Laura GoodIf you are a relative or close friend of the Arant family in Ruleville, Mississippi, there’s a good chance that at some point over the last few decades, you’ve been the recipient of a zip-top bag (or two) of rice. It was grown on their farm in the heart of the Delta—one the Arant clan has worked since 1920. It was minimally processed in an antique mill. When you pulled the bag open, your nose was greeted with a gentle, slightly sweet, dry-grass scent, and when you cooked and
Growing up, David Arant Jr., the fourth generation of Arant farmers, heard the rave reviews all the time. “This is so good!” “I’ve never had rice that tasted so great!” These sentiments ran on repeat for years, and while he knows his granddad, dad, and uncle liked the compliments, none of them gave it too much thought. “They’d tell us how much they loved our rice, but it was the only rice we’d ever had, so it didn’t really resonate,” David says. “Plus, it was free, so I kinda thought that might be part of their enthusiasm.”
Back then, despite its small group of vocally loyal fans, that rice was not the money maker. And rice was not the only thing growing at the Arant farm. There was also corn, soybeans, and catfish, plus some cotton. The farm continued to change with the times and today grows only corn, rice, and soybeans on about 4,000 acres. One quarter of that land yields rice. And just a tiny segment of those rice fields cultivated the grain of inspiration for Delta Blues Rice.
When David left Jackson, Mississippi, and a career as a civil engineer, to come home to the farm in 2012, he remembered the glowing praise garnered by that rice they shared with friends. While 95 percent of the Arant farm rice was and still is bought, transported away to be milled elsewhere, and then sold to consumers under the name of big rice brands, that rice came out of the small portion the family held back for itself and milled on the farm. “I got to thinking about how much people enjoyed that rice,” David says. “And in Jackson, my wife and I really enjoyed going to farmers markets and interacting with the growers. Those two things motivated me to create Delta Blues Rice. It gave us the opportunity to sell our milled rice that I already knew people liked, directly to customers and really connect with them.”
Delta Blues Rice is tended similarly to the rest of the rice on the farm: in a pretty labor-intensive process that requires flooding fields and carefully controlling the depth—with levees if needed—to keep the rice submerged in one to two inches of water until harvest, usually four to five months after planting. But after leaving the fields, the rice doesn’t leave the farm again until it’s on its way to customers’ kitchens.
In addition to being milled on site and sold directly, Delta Blues Rice is different in another way. Each bag contains only one type of rice, an organic long-grain variety that was developed in the agriculture department at Mississippi State University and chosen for both superior flavor and milling properties. According to David, this single variety distinction is key to the Delta Blues Rice experience. “We grow multiple varieties of rice, and they all have different cooking and taste characteristics,” he says. “When I send my rice to the big grain elevators, they commingle every variety, so when you buy most rice at the grocery store, you are probably getting different mixes of different varieties.” That means from one box or bag to the next, consumers often end up with a rice blend that can make consistency in texture and taste elusive. Delta Blues Rice provides dependable, and delicious, results.
Today’s customers are as pleased with these results as were the friends of the Arant family, and food critics and chefs have been equally impressed, earning the company recognition and multiple awards. “With our single variety, you always get reliable flavor and cooking characteristics,” David says. “We also don’t do as much machining in our milling process, and I mill small batches to order.” He conceded that “small batch” is overused but insisted it keeps his rice fresher, and that matters in rice. “I know that’s not a term you think of with rice, but it is important,” he says.
Those in the food world have been particularly wowed by Delta Blues Rice Grits. Simply bits of broken rice, and once considered waste, rice grits are now revered for cooking up creamy and thick, like grits made from corn. In the past, these pieces were undesirable because when prepared, they didn’t meet expectations; they didn’t end up as fluffy, separated grains. But treat them as a porridge, and they turn out perfectly. “We weren’t the first to do rice grits, but we have won awards for ours,” David says.
Delta Blues now grows, mills, and packages on-site its white rice, brown rice, white rice grits, brown rice grits, and jasmine rice. David says the jasmine rice smells like “buttered popcorn.” Most rice has only a subtle aroma, but it’s one of comfort for many. “An older lady told me that when she cooks our rice, the smell takes her back to her childhood in the South, the smell of cooking rice back then,” David says. “Those comments mean a lot to me.”
He also relishes the reaction he gets from people who’ve gotten used to eating instant or parboiled rice. “Seeing the satisfaction when someone tries our rice for the first time—that surprise and enjoyment—that is really rewarding,” he says. “It makes the work worth it. It lets me know we’re doing this right.”