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Heirloom Rice Brings Chefs to Pamlico County
Locally grown rice and seafood is the attraction
June 23, 2021

rice farm near Whortonsville, an oddity in its own right, was recently the site of an unusual introduction. More than a dozen chefs and food critics from Asheville to the coast were invited to visit Tidewater Grain – the first Carolina Gold Rice farm in North Carolina in over 120 years. There, they were introduced to the farmers and fishermen working to provide fresh, local products for their kitchens.

This was the Got To Be NC Chef Field Trip. TownDock talked with Tidewater Grain’s owners, Al Spruill and Tommy Wheeler, about what the event was all about:

Al Spruill and Tommy Wheeler, didn’t intend to farm a heritage rice crop. They were just looking for better duck hunting. What they found was that their duck hunting was enhanced by local grain farms. The men began researching, Wheeler told the chefs in his field trip presentation, “we learned the ratoon – or volunteer crop of rice that sprouts after rice is first harvested – helps attracts ducks, while the first harvesting primarily constitutes what is milled and sold.”

Grains of Carolina Gold Rice before processed by a rice mill.

But it wasn’t a matter of cultivating a one or two acres of rice. Wheeler told the crowd, “growing just a few acres of rice was not economically practical. We learned that to grow any amount of rice, you had to make an investment.”

TideWater’s own rice lager, made in collaboration with Full Steam Brewing.

So Wheeler and his friends, a local hunt club calling themselves the Killing Cans Hunt Club, got into the grain business. They choose Carolina Gold Rice – a heritage variety that had not been in production in NC since the early 1900s. And one well suited to the tidewater region of Pamlico County, hence the name: TideWater Grain.

Ricky Moore, chef and founder of the SALTBOX Seafood Joint and Food Truck in Durham, left, and Stephen Goff, chef at the Jargon Restaurant in Asheville, converse with Chad Blackwelder of the NC Department of Agriculture, right, about new ways to introduce rice on menus in a discussion of restaurants buying directly from farmers, a win-win for the bottom line for both entities.

“Our rice is traceable to the rice that was first introduced to this country when a ship grounded in 1685 near Charleston and had to trade its cargo of rice to make ship repairs,” Spruill told the chefs. “The locals around Charleston started growing rice and what we call Carolina Gold is traced to that strain of rice from Madagascar. This is a heritage product and is a really good tasting rice for all kinds of dishes.”

Senator Norm Sanderson and 12 year old Dane Wheeler

Their first foray into rice production three years ago covered a mere 3 acres. Aided by the equipment and know-how of Alston ‘Al’ Spruill Farms, the 2021 planting covers 120 acres. Within the next three years, TideWater Grain plans to expand to 500 acres.

Talks in the field – new seedlings, duck food, and rice products.
Why is rice grown under water? Al Spruill explained that weeds can’t grow in water, but rice can. The water is in effect a natural herbicide.

“Gone are the days when a man who has a few acres can work just a piece of land and it be viable,” Spruill, co-owner of Tidewater Grain told the chefs. “Tidewater Grain could never afford the equipment to tend 120 acres. But I can easily provide equipment from my farm to do what is needed for the rice. It has to be a partnership like this or it would not work.”

And that was the main point of the Got To Be NC Chef Field Trip: a direct partnership between chefs and the people who raise and harvest their food. Getting NC foods – rice, seafood, and farmed goods – straight to NC restaurants.

The scene outside the hunt club: NC oysters, NC Whiskey, and NC Chefs.

Over three days, Spruill and Wheeler treated the group to NC raised products, farms and fishery tours. The chefs sampled products like honey and sausage, strawberries and fresh, local caught seafood, and of course TideWater Grain’s Carolina Gold Rice.

Tommy Mitchell and Richard Chapman of Bogue Sound Distillery. Tidewater Grain is talking with the distillery about providing grains for their spirits.

In addition to touring Tidewater Grain’s rice fields, chefs went on a fishing tour with Paradise Shores Adventures and Lighthouse Shoal Oyster Company. The group also visited Paradise Shores’ soft shell crab shedding facility. The group were able to see first-hand blue crabs molting and the work it takes to ensure their survival from farm to table.

Tommy Wheeler does the in club presentation, while Al Spruill gives the field lessons.

Chefs were given the opportunity to buy live crabs to take home. Since the event, two chefs, Jamie Davis and James Patterson, have been ordering soft shell crabs directly from Paradise shores.

In addition to the chefs, there was another group present at the tour: brewers and distillers. With the spirits market in mind, Spruill and Wheeler added Seashore Black Rye and barley to their crops this year. Tidewater has partnered with Durham’s Epiphany Craft Malt to malt Carolina Gold Rice for brewing. Full Steam Brewing, one of six breweries in the state using Tidewater’s malted rice, served their new Tidewater Ale to the visiting chefs.

The Got to Be NC campaign mirrors Buy Local promotions with added benefits for consumers, growers, and food processors, restaurant or otherwise.

The event made an impression. “I love what the guys at Tidewater Grain Co. are doing,” Tie Whitaker, a chef from Clayton. “Their process is unlike any other, and their product is delicious. I really look forward to experimenting with a rice pudding ice cream.”

The Got To Be NC Chef Field Trip is expected to be back in 2022.

Story & photos by Ben Casey, Allison DeWeese and Keith N. Smith

Posted Wednesday June 23, 2021 by Allison DeWeese

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