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Growing rice on Canada’s west coast

May 21, 2009

Baby rice plantsI worry about our food supply – and I have for quite some time.

I moved from a beautiful house in the rainforest, with a small sunny yard mostly taken up by a big and productive veggie garden, to a townhouse last autumn.  I can’t say I was 100% self-sufficient in my veggies – but, over summer, I sure did not buy much at all.  Even in the winter, by having root crops such as carrots and potatoes in the ground or stored, and growing some of the greens such kale, chard, and sprouting broccoli, that grow year-round in our mild coastal climate (yes, here in Canada!), I was able to provide a fair bit of my winter food too.

Now, my first spring in the townhouse, I am working hard to get some food growing in a few pots on my small but sunny deck.  I have lots of herbs, four varieties of strawberries, a few greens such as kale and chard, and tomatoes seedlings that are springing up higher daily.

But the new crop that I am experimenting with is rice!  Yes, I am working towards a Canadian rice crop.

I don’t know if it will work.  But I do seriously fear the coming food shortages – which could be caused by any number of things including:
– long-term climate change as well as short-term catastrophic events (storms and floods) related to climate change
– blight and diseases of crops as we continue to focus on a few varieties and lose the genetic diversity of different species
– contamination of traditional crop varieties with genetically modified versions
– diversion of food crops for use as biofuels, so we can feed cars instead of people!
– bulldozing productive agricultural land to make more houses and shopping malls

All of these things are already happening.  Each one threatens our food supply – and, as farmland shrinks and the world’s population grows, the only end result is that some people are going to run out of food.  Even China became a net food importer in cash terms last year!  That should worry you – it worries me.

I’ve been gardening in Tofino for ten years now.  In each place I’ve lived (Ontario, eastern Australia, western Australia, and now coastal BC) I have had to relearn how to grow veggies.  Back in Australia I lived on tomatoes, eggplants and basil – three crops which I have to coddle, creating warm and sunny micro-environments for, here in Tofino.  But here, I can grow lush greens: lettuces, chard, and kale, pretty much year-round.

Even though I don’t have much garden space where I live now, I know what grows here and how to grow it; if I need to, I can get my food production up-to-speed pretty quickly.

The one thing that really is a challenge here, though, is the carbs.  Sure, we can grow potatoes til they are coming out our ears – but if the food supply really gets cut off, potatoes 365 days a year could get pretty dull.

So, that’s why I am experimenting with rice.  I know it is a more tropical to sub-tropical crop – but, with our very wet environment here (4 m of rain per year!), I think I will have more luck with it than with wheat, which would just rot.  I’ve researched it on the net – there is a great free rice-growing manual out there – and found out a fair bit.  

Depending upon the variety, rice takes from 90 to 200 days to mature.  Apparently the Louisiana varieties are the fastest-maturing.  I tried growing some rice from the bulk bins at the grocery store in April (brown rice of course, white rice won’t sprout).  It sprouted well, and after two days I planted the sprouted seeds in a tub of saturated potting soil, and kept it on my heated tile floor.  The seedlings started to grow but then, one by one, they withered and died.

So, a few weeks ago I started again – this time with a short-grained brown rice from California (hoping that Californian rice, like the Louisianan varieties, is some of the faster-maturing stuff).  So far they are doing great.

It’s all a big experiment – seeing if I can keep them warm enough to get a crop out of them.  I don’t have enough plants to expect much yield.  This is just a test, to see whether it is possible and, if so, to learn what I need to know.  Some day this might be life-saving information – and I don’t want to be figuring this stuff out once things really start to hit the fan.

(For updates on 2009’s rice-growing efforts, see my blog entries Sept. 5 and Nov. 27)

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