Clemson, collaborators continue efforts to revive ancient southern crops
FLORENCE – Clemson researchers are working with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation to revive heirloom grains in South Carolina and renewal of the university’s Small Grains Breeding and Genetics Program is one asset researchers believe will assist in this effort.
Rick Boyles, a research scientist at the Clemson University Pee Dee Research and Education Center (Pee Dee REC) and a foundation board member spoke about reviving the breeding program when he gave a research update to almost 100 people attending the foundation’s spring meeting held recently at the Pee Dee REC and Carolina Plantation Rice in Darlington. Boyles is in the process of evaluating thousands of grain lines to determine which ones are best adapted to South Carolina, as well as to the entire southeastern United States.
“We’re evaluating important traits such as disease resistance and grain quality,” Boyles said. “To become more efficient, we are using a combination of traditional and advanced plant genetics approaches to understand the genetic basis of important traits and help to broaden the gene pool that exists in regional breeding populations.”
The Small Grains Breeding and Genetics program has been inactive since 2008. Boyles said revival of the program is desperately needed to help increase the availability of improved plant varieties that have beneficial attributes to increase farmer productivity and profitability in South Carolina.
“This program is continuing to build where it needs to be so that, as Clemson researchers, we can identify, develop, and release small grains cultivars that are tailored for South Carolina growers and end-users, as well as additional stakeholders across the southeastern United States,” Boyles said.
Boyles annually evaluates local cultivars, also known as landraces, and crop wild relatives to find natural genetic variation that can be exploited for crop improvement. Landraces represent the oldest cultivated varieties that have been handed down in communities to the present age. In comparison, heirlooms are varieties that were carefully selected by growers over generations and distributed across regions as a result of their uniqueness and value.
Boyles earned a doctoral degree in genetics from Clemson and began working at the Pee Dee REC in 2017. He is working with Clemson researchers, Stephen Kresovich and Brian Ward, as well as David Shields, foundation chairman and Carolina distinguished professor for the University of South Carolina, to research and repatriate the landrace grains that once thrived in South Carolina.
Carolina Gold Rice is one of these grains and was introduced to South Carolina in 1685 when a merchant ship damaged by a raging storm hobbled in to the Charleston Harbor. In the ship’s cargo bay was Carolina Gold Rice from Madagascar, Africa. The rice found its way to South Carolina fields and became a major cash crop before a series of mishaps caused it to totally disappear from the state. But, with help from the foundation and some Clemson researchers, Carolina Gold is once again becoming a popular rice for cultivation, owing to its resiliency and versatility.
Growing and promoting South Carolina culture
The agenda included a visit to the Carolina Rice Plantation near Darlington where plantation owner Campbell Coxe talked about how rice is grown, milled and sold from the plantation. He has been farming rice for 20 years.
“I was growing cotton and was not doing really well,” Coxe said. “I decided to diversify and grow something that I could sell directly to consumers. This was a rice-growing area in the 1700s and 1800s, so I started growing rice.”
When Coxe started growing rice, he was shipping it 800 miles to be milled. After gasoline reached $4 a gallon he decided he needed to do something, so he built a mill on the family farm. Rice he grows, mills and packages is sold from a small farm store nearby. He grows aromatic rice including: Carolina Plantation Brown Rice, Carolina Plantation Charleston Gold Rice, Carolina Plantation Gold Rice and Carolina Plantation White Rice.
Chefs all over South Carolina are ambassadors for Carolina Gold Rice and South Carolina’s roots, including a group of 4-H’ers from Charleston County who are taking their recipe, which includes Carolina Gold Rice, to the Great American Seafood Cookoff in New Orleans on August 4. The recipe is a modified version of Limpin’ Susan served over a thick fish filet.
“The reason we chose this dish is because it comes from the Gullah culture,” said Ian Adams, one of the 4-H’ers going to the cookoff. “Gullah ties in to South Carolina’s roots and we wanted to do our best to respect that connection and provide some insight to the judges who may not be aware of that part of South Carolina’s history. We chose Carolina Gold Rice because it too is a part of our state history. This rice has a flavor that cannot be replicated with any other rice and it adds to the flavor profile very nicely.”
Legend has it Limpin’ Susan was the wife of Hoppin’ John, a peas and rice dish Gullah cooks have made for generations in the South Carolina Sea Islands and Lowcountry, as well as the Caribbean. While there are several versions of this recipe, depending on whose kitchen it is being prepared, all have one ingredient in common – rice. In fact, rice is a main ingredient in most Gullah dishes.
Joining Adams in New Orleans are team members Joey Camarota and Lydia Potter.
Taking agriculture to new levels
Diversified crop research and development is conducted at Clemson’s Advanced Plant Technology Program. Led by Kresovich, who holds the Robert and Lois Coker Endowed Chair of Genetics, the program is home to an assembly of world-class scientists dedicated to taking agriculture to new levels by developing innovative crop breeding and management systems.
The foundation’s annual meeting usually is held in Charleston, but in an effort to reach more farmers and show diversity among South Carolina heritage crops, this year’s meeting was held in Florence. In addition to farmers from several states, a delegation of rice farmers from the West African country of Guinea-Bissau attended the event. Rice and cashews are Guinea-Bissau’s largest crops. The Guinea-Bissau farmers speak Portuguese and were lucky to have Clemson graduate student Giovanni Caputo translate for them. Caputo is from Brazil and is working on his master’s degree in weed science. Brian Ward, a research scientist at Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center, asked Caputo to translate after finding out the farmers were attending the event and just spoke Portuguese.
“This was the first time I’ve ever translated for someone, so I was a little nervous,” Caputo said. “I wanted to be sure I got everything correct, so if I didn’t understand something, I asked someone who knew the topic and what was being said to be sure I was giving the correct translation.”
Other speakers at the meeting include Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills on Folly Beach in Charleston, who said weather conditions have kept him and his workers out of the fields.
“The weather has been very challenging,” Roberts said. “The climate is changing and is presenting problems we haven’t had in the past. We need to breed crops for climate change and we need to move as quickly as we can.”
Also, during the meeting, Shields discussed the history of the American palate and how changes in taste acceptance have influenced plant breeding.
“Growing out a cuisine with the guidance of the historical record gives the most convenient grounds for experimentation with making ingredients as fine as they can be – given the time, place, economy and environmental conditions,” said Shields, who is author of Southern Provisions: The Creation & Revival of a Cuisine.
In addition, Hayden Smith, adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, proposed forming a Rice Institute at the College of Charleston with input from Clemson researchers and others to help promote the growth of rice in South Carolina. Smith said this would be a valuable asset for teaching agricultural and environmental demands associated with growing rice.