Rice transplanting line at Wild Folk Farm in Benton. Credit: Submitted photo by Corallina Breuer

Maine might seem to be an unusual place to grow rice, but for the last six years, Ben Rooney from Wild Folk Farm in Benton has shown it can be done.

He’s also found that Mainers are hungry for locally-grown rice, with demand far outpacing the amount of the grain that the small paddy system on his farm — the only Maine farm commercially growing rice — can supply.

“The demand for rice seems to be growing exponentially,” Rooney said. “People want rice here.”

That’s why he is particularly excited that the Maine Rice Project, a non-profit he helped start which has a goal of getting more people to grow and eat sustainably grown rice and grain throughout Maine, is expanding. A $25,000 grant the project recently received from the Maine Technology Institute is helping Rooney and others to search for new sites to grow rice in Maine. They are hoping to partner with existing farms where farmers would like to incorporate rice paddies into their business plan. They are also interested in leasing farmland that would be good for growing rice.

“There’s a lot of people who have locations that are good for rice paddies,” Rooney said.

A good site for a rice paddy will have clay soil, an uphill pond with good capacity, a slight slope for water management and be identified in the United States Department of Agriculture’s plant hardiness map as in Zone 4b or warmer. For farmers who can and want to grow rice on their farms, Rooney and others from the Maine Rice Project will work with them to design and build paddy systems based on individual site characteristics. Some of the knowledge of how to build paddies on Maine farms came from his own years of trial and error at Wild Folk Farm, where rice growing began somewhat experimentally.

“I got into rice because I got interested in small-scale grain growing and human-powered grain growing,” Rooney said. “I tried most of the normal [grains] and the only one that did well on the farm was rice.”

That was in 2012, when he planted a few grains of rice seed obtained through the USDA. Since then, his rice-growing abilities have grown a lot. Last summer, using the one-acre paddy system constructed at Wild Folk Farm, he grew between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of rice, and sold about 2,000 pounds of rice as food. Bags of rice from Wild Folk Farm can be found at locations around the state, including Good Tern Natural Foods in Rockland, the Portland Food Co-op, Morning Glory in Brunswick, Meridians in Fairfield, Rising Tide in Damariscotta, 47 Daisies in Vassalboro, the Blue Hill Co-op and the Belfast Co-op.

But he also has learned that Wild Folk Farm is not, in fact, ideal for growing rice.

“There are two problems,” Rooney said. “One is that we have an amazing bobolink population. Their name means ‘grass eater.’ We start growing rice and they eat it.”

Credit: Courtesy of Wild Folk Farm

The other problem is that the uphill pond is not big enough to give a sufficient amount of water to the rice paddies.

“The farm should be growing half the amount of rice it’s growing,” he said. “So we’re downscaling. We’re growing less rice in the paddies than we used to and more upland rice in our garden plots. The reason for the expansion [of the Maine Rice Project] is that there’s a lot more people who want rice, and Wild Folk can’t be supplying more. I’m trying to find some places that are more favorable for growing rice. Places that are warmer, with a good watershed and a nice pond.”

So far, he’s scoped out about a dozen prospective sites, and would like to look at one or two dozen more before settling on the right farms. Once the farms are chosen, site work on the one to four acre paddy systems should begin in the spring of 2019. For paddy construction, they’re looking for places where ponds can be built uphill so that gravity can bring the water down to the paddies. And as for the varieties of rice that can grow in Maine rice paddies, there are a lot. Even though most Maine grocery stores carry just a handful of types, more than 40,000 varieties of cultivated rice are said to exist. At Wild Folk Farm, Rooney is growing around a dozen different varieties right now, and selling eight of them. They include a red rice from Uzbekistan, a risotto-type rice from Italy and a couple of light-brown, short-grain varieties from Japan.

“Rice grows in all these places that have a similar climate to Maine,” Rooney said.

The grant should take the Maine Rice Project through the winter and the completion of three or four paddy designs with participating farmers. He hopes that will just be the beginning of the rice expansion here. If farmers see that they can recoup the cost of constructing a paddy in just two or three years, it’s possible that more farmers will decide to grow rice, he said.

“My goal all along has been to have more paddies in Maine,” he said.

To get in touch with Rooney about growing rice, email wildfolkfarmers@gmail.com