Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 364-A   January 10, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The Biblical saying, "All flesh is grass", is food for thought. Civilization depends on agriculture; and agriculture, fundamentally, depends upon the seeds of grasses that were originally wild: principally wheat, rice and corn; to a lesser extent upon barley, rye, oats and millet, These are the cereal grains that feed us. The seeds, stems and leaves of these and other grasses also sustain the animals upon which we depend for meat.

Millet and, later, barley were apparently the first grains to be cultivated but civilization really arrived, probably 10, 000 years ago, when man learned how to grow wheat. He learned how to make bread, the staff of life. About the same time, in southeastern Asia, he learned how to cultivate rice and boil it for food. To lessen his labor, he invented the plow, the wheel and the cart. Here in the western hemisphere he domesticated maize, which we call corn. Until those times the land would not support relatively dense populations nor the central cities that advanced the progress of civilization.

Today, about half of the world's population lives primarily upon rice. Because of its high yield per acre it supports densities of population as great as from 1000 to 2000 people per square mile -- for example, along the Malabar Coast of southwestern India. For millions it is the chief dish, if not the only dish, at every meal. The Filipino, for instance, not only eats rice but thinks rice, with special rituals for every phase of its cultivation and processing.

In contrast to wheat, rice originated in a tropical, very rainy, marshy country. It is the only important food plant grown in water, although some upland "dry" varieties have been developed. Apparently, all cultivated rice comes from a single species which has been found growing wild in southern China and the Dutch East Indies. Today there are more than 2400 varieties including about 1000 in India alone -- special strains adapted to local differences in soil, temperature and rainfall. The wild rice native here in North America, so important to many Indian tribes and still an important food for waterfowl, is a different species.

Cultivated rice is a typical annual grass with hollow jointed stems and fibrous roots. It grows to be from 2 to 5 feet tall and has a seed head resembling oats. Most of it is grown in tropical or subtropical regions of southeastern Asia and neighboring islands. It can be grown best in low river bottomlands subject to frequent floods which leave deposits of rich silt. These are divided into a patchword of "paddies" separated from each other, and the ditches that furnish them water, by earthen walls. Most farmers own only one small paddy.

Such lands are not suitable for the use of machinery and, even where water buffaloes and wooden plows are used, a prodigious amount of back-breaking labor is required to prepare the soil, plant the rice, flood it, weed it, harvest it, thresh it, and polish it for use -- all by hand. In Japan, the Philippine Islands and elsewhere, rice is grown on mountain slopes terraced with walled-in shelves, from the valley to the top. These are flooded during the rainy season but it is a prodigious task to keep them in order and control the water. Contrast these methods with rice farming on irrigated valleys in California -- seeded by airplane and employing modern machinery throughout.

Rice was introduced into South Carolina in 1694 and, until the Civil War, was a major crop on the south Atlantic coast. Thomas Jefferson spent years trying to introduce "dry" rice which could be grown on uplands instead of the disease-ridden tideland swamps.

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