Souvenir seekers pay good money to have their names engraved on a grain of rice.
For Carolina Plantation rice grower Campbell Coxe, so much of his identity is tied to his crop that it wouldn’t be surprising to find his name emblazoned on every single grain he harvests.
Rice is an integral part of South Carolina’s culinary legacy, but for Coxe, it’s also part of a family legacy in the making. The fifth-generation farmer has spent his life carrying on many of the agricultural traditions of his forebears.
And he was spot-on. Not only do people the nation over clamor to snag biodegradable cloth bags of Carolina Plantation brand rice, but Coxe is credited by food historians for reviving the once-extinct enterprise in the state.
From Cotton to Rice
Facing difficulties with his cotton crop, Coxe made the radical shift to rice farming a little more than two decades ago. Though South Carolina was once the world’s leading producer of rice, the Civil War put an end to that dynasty and by the 1900s, rice growers disappeared altogether.
Then came Coxe’s epiphany.
“I was not doing real well with cotton, so I decided to diversify and do something that could go directly to the consumer,” said Coxe, who admits to being a history buff, especially where South Carolina and rice are concerned.
“I thought with the new wave of eating—people wanting to know where their food comes from—that having something special like rice from South Carolina would be a good way to market my crop.”
On the 20-acre Plumfield Plantation, he harnesses a perfect storm of environmental gifts—hot temperatures, rich soil and the waters of the Pee Dee River—to grow several varieties of rice, including aromatics with scents that bloom in the pot just as seductively as jasmine or basmati.
“I like to say that we sell smell,” said Coxe, who built a mill on the farm so his products are guaranteed fresh, unlike grocery store brands that can sit on shelves for months or years.
Coxe also produces grits, cornmeal, fish fry breading and rice flour. Of greatest import, though, was his decision to include heirloom Carolina Gold in the rice lineup, a move that was instrumental in restoring the most classic of South Carolina’s foods to the dinner table.
“It’s not aromatic, but Carolina Gold is the ideal rice for mingling all the ingredients in classic South Carolina dishes like chicken bog and perlo,” said David Shields, University of South Carolina professor and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
Its aromatic progeny—Charleston Gold rice—is another favorite and named for the “birthplace of rice in America.”
How Rice is Grown in Darlington County
The rice-growing season, which spans 120 days, is not friendly to the work-shy. It’s a demanding endeavor often requiring toiling from sun-up to sun-down. There are fields to be plowed and leveled and planting to be done when the seedbeds are nice and dry.
When the plants reach the 6-inch mark, the fields are flooded with water through summer. The water is then drained off and the rice harvested in early fall. It is fully air dried in bins, then milled and packaged for retail sales. The eventual fruits of all that labor make rice growing a worthwhile undertaking, especially for rice lovers.
“We don’t store rice,” Coxe said. “When you buy a bag of Carolina Plantation rice, you are getting a new crop. That really sets us apart. We sell out every year, so when the rice is gone, it’s gone.”