The calendar said October, but the reality on this early fall day was that Old Man Summer still hung around. With an air temperature reading 98 degrees, the last few miles before reaching the rice fields gave me a chance to sip cool water and prepare for the brutal heat on this photo shoot.
I would have chosen to do this trip on a cooler day, but we had waited more than two weeks until the moisture content in the crop was correct for harvesting Carolina Gold Rice. Rain was due tomorrow also.
When reaching the fields where rice farmer Campbell Coxe was to meet me, I was impressed by the vast acres of golden stalks of rice stretching to the distant horizon. The view reminded me of the plains of Nebraska or the Dakotas — not Darlington County, South Carolina. Walking to the field, I noticed how the multitude of plump rice grains on each stalk head caused a bowing of the stalk. As I inspected a stalk, the light amber grain told me how the rice got its name.
More than a quarter mile away, a distant hum and cloud of dust surrounding a combine told me Campbell was steady at work. Slowly, the combine made its way down each row. The large blades of the combine churned similar to a paddlewheel as the rice was cut, separated from the stalk, and stored in the belly of the combine. After the combine passed over it, the cut stub only remained a length of 4 to 6 inches.
Harvesting a huge field was a slow process, and the heat was beating on me as I photographed various aspects of the harvesting process. I thought perhaps five football fields end to end could fit in the field, and it would be a while before meeting Campbell.
Walking the fields in the early afternoon sun took a lot of energy, with heat radiating from two directions: the sun overhead and the sun bouncing off the ground of the open field. Soon, I noticed the combine quit cutting the rows; I could hear the engine start to wind down, the dust settled, and the combine started heading to the staging area where a truck awaited. Now full with rice, the combine slowly returned to empty the rice into the back of a tractor trailer in the staging area. A long chute on the side of the combine blew the rice into the back bed of the trailer. The truck’s destination would be a local mill where the harvest would be prepared for packaging and the marketplace. Campbell exited the combine to shake my hand. I was impressed by his tall stature and easy personality. We spoke about the process of harvesting and the expected rains for tomorrow.
Campbell, a farmer for 38 years, decided 20 years ago to change the direction of his farming practices. In those earlier years, Campbell grew traditional crops such as corn and cotton. As was the case with most farmers, his hard work meant he had to endure droughts, too much rain, pests, diseases, and the price the commodities’ market determined his harvests were worth. He felt he had no control over the financial aspects of being a farmer, and knew he needed things to change. He needed something he could have better control over instead of being dependent on the actions of outside brokers. A cousin of Campbell’s living in Florida had been growing rice for small waterfowl impoundments and suggested Campbell give it a try. A history buff, Campbell chose to grow Carolina Gold Rice, continuing a tradition of growing an heirloom seed the origins of which dated back to the 1600s.
Once the combine was emptied, Campbell asked if I would like to ride in it. As I climbed up the side steps and settled in the cab, I noticed the combine towered over the field. I photographed blades as they churned in front of us. The cab air conditioning made the high temperature tolerable for me, but Campbell told me he isn’t bothered too much by the heat.
Halfway down the first row, Campbell told me that the belt inside the combine, that keeps stalks from clogging the back of the combine, was slipping. The belt had been slipping most of the last hour, resulting in clogging in the back of the combine. Cut stalks built up in the combine without falling to the ground. “I don’t know how much longer it is going to hold. We’ll need to return to the trucks to see if we can get that belt fixed,” he explained.
It’s a certainty to say that a farmer knows his equipment. Farming machinery powers the ability to prepare fields for planting and harvesting. Lifting the cover from the side of the combine revealed a system of belts, flywheels, and drive systems powering the function of the combine. Campbell inspected the belts, pulleys, and moving parts to assess the problem. Once he located the belt that needed adjusting, Campbell used wrenches to loosen the flywheels and stretch the slipping belt. He went through various contortions holding a flywheel in one hand, stretching a belt with the other hand, wiping the sweat off his brow.
I asked if he was used to such occurrences, and he chuckled, saying it was part of the process of being a farmer. I continued watching and photographed the process he went through getting the belt in the correct tension position. Suddenly, as the belt was stretched towards the flywheel, the belt snapped. No curse words from him, just a sigh regarding the situation. If he couldn’t get a replacement, the harvest for today would be finished. A call was placed to the local farm machinery store, and a replacement belt would arrive tomorrow at the earliest.
My plans to photograph a combine against a setting sun would have to wait. No more heat to deal with, I thought. But then, I thought of what it meant to Campbell. Would he be able to beat the rains? If not, would he have to wait another week for the moisture content to lower before the stalks could be cut? Late summer rains had prevented him from harvesting the traditional first week of September, and now it was October. It made me realize the stress and anxiety farmers go through bringing their crops to fruition and delivering to the local markets.
While we had a chance to cool off, we talked more. Campbell spoke of his farming product.
Growing rice needs lots of flat lands and a large water supply. Using the nearby Pee Dee River on the hundreds of acres on Campbell’s property allows him to continue a tradition where very little competition stands. A traditional rice yield is 4,000 pounds per acre, but Carolina Gold yields 2,500 pounds per acre. That lesser bushel production is more than made up by the quality, taste, reputation, and results of growing Carolina Gold. He is proud of his product and thrilled a large following of well-known chefs in the United States and Canada use his rice in their dishes and restaurants. He grows a product that is heirloom and not genetically modified. “We have complete control of the process — growing, harvesting, milling, packaging, and marketing. That’s the way I want it to be.”
We use the word “gold” as a standard in reaching the pinnacles in various aspects of our lives and careers. Taste Carolina Gold, and you’ll see how it certainly lives up to its name. I’m glad to have met a farmer who loves what he does and gets great satisfaction in his product. Campbell couldn’t express it any better when he says, “It brings the world to my swamp.”