BENTON, Maine — When you think of where rice is grown, you probably think of hot, steamy locales such as Vietnam, the Philippines and even Arkansas.
You probably do not think of Benton, Maine, a Kennebec County town that is more known for its scenic views of the Kennebec River than its rice paddies. But that is changing, according to Ben Rooney, a 28-year-old graduate of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Journeyperson program, who has been growing rice at Wild Folk Farm in Benton for the past three years. Last year, the farm produced about 400 pounds of rice, and he has hopes that number will grow as much as tenfold during the 2016 growing season.
“I consider myself an experimental farmer,” said Rooney, who will be giving a presentation on growing rice in Maine on Tuesday, March 1, at the Belfast Free Library. “I’m hoping the talk will stir up people’s excitement about growing grains.”
He said that while people often tell him it sounds crazy to grow rice in Maine, he has found it to be an enjoyable and even successful enterprise so far. Right now, he knows of no other farmers in the state who are growing rice, but he hopes that will change.
“We started with a little bit of seed from the USDA. It worked,” Rooney said. “One of the reasons we’re growing rice is because we’re learning to listen to our land. We have a lot of clay soil, and we thought we should try this out.”
Wild Folk Farm features forests, meadows and some marginal pastureland with a high water table and that clay soil, which is good at holding water. So good, in fact, that Rooney and the other farmers at Wild Folk Farm are creating wetlands there. Uphill from the pastureland, there is a pond that the group has made larger with the help of an excavator. Water travels from the pond to the eight paddies with the help of underground piping.
“I love the serenity of the still water juxtaposed with these bands of grain,” Rooney said.
Wild Folk Farm grew 25 varieties of rice last year and sold three varieties for seed. All of last year’s seed varieties were short-grain, cold-tolerant varieties from Japan or Russia.
“It definitely does not taste like rice from the grocery store,” Rooney said. “It’s fresh. It has flavor. There’s just a huge difference between bland staples and something with flavor and taste.”
For farmers and homesteaders who may be wondering if they could give growing rice a try, Rooney is encouraging.
“Hopefully we can show you can make some money doing this,” he said. “And that it’s not just an experiment.”
Ben Rooney will talk about growing rice at Wild Folk Farm in Benton, Maine at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, at the Belfast Free Library.