Rice tradition being resurrected at Hammock Coast farm
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Georgetown County, South Carolina, was the largest and most renowned rice producer in the United States.
Today, one family-owned business – White House Farms – is working to reignite that rice-growing tradition by producing the same quality rice that fueled the area’s success in the pre-Civil War era.
Sold as Andy’s Charleston Gold Rice, in white, brown and middlins varieties, the rice is used in dishes at some of the best restaurants on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, the moniker for the area between Myrtle Beach to the north and Charleston to the south. The rice is also sold in select stores up and down the Carolina coast, and, coming soon, Andy’s Santee Gold Rice, an extra-long-grain variety, will join the mix.
All the varieties are derived from the traditional heirloom Carolina Gold Rice, once one of the world’s biggest-selling types of rice.
The land now known as White House Farms was once owned by Joel Poinsett and later John Julius Pringle, who married Elizabeth Allston, the daughter of South Carolina Gov. Robert Allston. Mr. Pringle only lived a few years after the marriage, but Elizabeth Allston Pringle carried on maintaining White House and her family’s property, Chicora Wood. Her story as a widow in the period after the Civil War is chronicled in her book, “A Woman Rice Planter.”
Don Quattlebaum, president of White House Farms, his wife, Hayden, and their son, Paul, took over the stewardship of White House Farms in 2011 and started producing rice commercially five years ago. Quattlebaum said they were drawn to the rich history of the land. The rice the family produces on the farm is named for their youngest son, Andy, who passed away in 2019.
“Starting in the 18th century, the peaty, muddy tidal fields here have produced rice that is uniquely flavorful and redolent of the Lowcountry terroir,” he said. “Although these rice fields endured more than two centuries of wars, hurricanes, even the Great Depression, insurmountable hurdles eventually ceased rice production at White House – until now.”
Craig Sasser, refuge manager for the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, said he thinks White House Farms producing this historic style of rice on the Hammock Coast, the same area where it was grown in the 1700s and early 1800s, is “an excellent development.”
“I love,” Sasser said, “the idea of bringing back this historic land use to Georgetown County.”
Sasser and his team at the refuge have been planting Charleston Gold Rice at Hasty Point near Georgetown, but it is only for attracting waterfowl to the area for hunting purposes.
“Rice not only made Georgetown County very wealthy, but it also created an incredible waterfowl heritage in Georgetown County,” Sasser said.
Quattlebaum said he thinks White House Farms could be just the start of a resurgence in growing quality rice on the Hammock Coast.
“I would like to see the rice industry make a comeback in South Carolina,” he said. “Not only are the heirloom varieties of Carolina Gold, Charleston Gold and Santee Gold highly prized for their culinary value, the soil that we grow them in adds additional flavors and complexity.”
Quattlebaum said now that White House Farms has added its own milling equipment, all aspects of the harvesting process – drying it, cleaning it, taking the husk off, polishing it and packaging it — will be done in-house. He explained that the Charleston Gold Rice came directly from the traditional Carolina Gold Rice cultivated in the area centuries ago, using slave labor and the expertise the enslaved Africans brought from their homelands a continent away.
Unlike modern rice that is often grown in sandy clay and harvested from multiple growers, White House Farms grows its rice in peaty fields that are mineral and nutrient rich. White House Farms is close enough to the ocean to flood the rice fields by the motion of the tides, but far enough away to receive natural freshwater river irrigation. Quattlebaum said that makes for delicious rice and a more sustainable farming method.
He said the company also uses traditional rotational crop methods as part of its land-stewardship program. After the harvest, the rice is dried and kept in its husk to maintain freshness. As needed, it is cleaned and milled in small batches, and it is minimally processed and polished to ensure no flavor is lost. The bags are heat-sealed to further preserve freshness.
Quattlebaum added that harvesting has gone much smoother now with newer harvesting equipment. Previously, the family used a platform header, which works well for dry crops, but not as well for rice, which is a wet crop.
“Last year, we were using a platform header, which is a normal header for combines in this area,” he explained. “Every hundred yards, we had to stop and take apart the front of the machine and take out the trash and start over again.”
The stripper header just takes the seeds off and leaves all the grass.
“All that grass doesn’t have to go through the machine and get chopped up and jam it up,” Quattlebaum said, “so it continues working and that makes a night-and-day difference.”
Facing challenges head-on and finding a way around obstacles is a part of life, and people who embrace this fact are the most successful in their fields. No one knows that better than the Quattlebaum family.
In 2022, White House Farms started harvesting on Sept. 6 and ended on Sept. 15. But it wasn’t easy. On Sept. 7, the family had a delay when a new harvester became stuck in the rice fields. When the farm crew attempted to pull it out with a backhoe, the hydraulics failed.
This was just the latest of many setbacks and challenges for the Quattlebaum family and the four employees who make up the rest of the operation.
Other main challenges for growing and harvesting rice, according to Quattlebaum, have been birds, hurricanes, and saltwater intrusion. Red-winged Blackbirds are the biggest menace to rice production at White House Farms. Quattlebaum said there are thousands of the birds that come to feast on maturing rice plants.
“The Red-winged Blackbirds are migratory, but they will stay as long as there is food,” he said. “We have tried everything we can think of to get rid of them, but nothing has worked for very long.”
Quattlebaum said he’d estimate the the farm lost about a third of the crop in 2021 and a fourth of the crop in 2022 to the birds’ overwhelming appetite for the rice. The family has tried many things to scare the birds off, including shooting at them, placing balloons in the fields, and using loudspeakers with hawk sounds. Quattlebaum also tried planting a “dummy” field to attract the birds and keep them away from the main fields. Nothing has been an overwhelming success.
He said the techniques that have worked best are firing a shotgun near the birds, which makes a supersonic crack. But that only deters the birds for about 20 minutes and then they come back.
Spraying approved chemicals from a plane has been another attempt.
“It produces a hot taste to the birds,” Quattlebaum said. “It is used extensively in California in the vineyards. But it washes off easily in the rain and it is expensive, so we are hesitant to use it with rain almost a daily event.”
The second challenge to the success of White House Farms is hurricanes, a looming threat on the East Coast from June 1 to Nov. 30. However, in 2022, White House was lucky with no storms during the growing and harvesting seasons.
The third challenge, which Quattlebaum says is the most frustrating thing for him, is that there is too much salt in the river, which has caused White House Farms to delay flooding the rice fields. It delayed the harvest for at least two weeks, he said.
“It desperately needs to flush,” Quattlebaum said before the harvest. “The reason there is too much salt in the river is that Duke Power Co. won’t let the water out of the dam up there. So, they are changing our ecosystem by not letting the river flow naturally.”
He said that luckily there was a lot of rain right before the beginning of September, which freshened the river enough for harvesting.
“So, we were able to flood the fields, but it was about three weeks later than we wanted,” he said. “One of the difficulties with late flooding was differing maturity levels due to areas of the fields holding more moisture than others.”
Restaurants and retail
Currently, Frank’s and Frank’s Outback in Pawleys Island, as well as Root and Between the Antlers in Georgetown, are using the rice for their menu items. It can also be purchased at coastal Lowe’s Foods locations from Beaufort, South Carolina, to Wilmington, North Carolina, as well as the Brookgreen Gardens gift shop in Murrells Inlet.
Salters McClary, owner of Frank’s and Frank’s Outback, said he has incorporated White House Farms rice into several menu items, including their fresh fish of the day, their “bowl of soul,” which also has collard greens, black eye peas, and fried Pickle-brined chicken.
“The rice is of superior quality and very aromatic; you can smell it cooking throughout the restaurant,” McClary said. “It has a slightly nutty flavor that adds a layer of depth to dishes.”
He added that White House Farms is honoring an important legacy of rice production in this area.
“The fact that the rice is being produced in the area where it was grown in the 1700s and early 1800s makes it a no-brainer for use on our menus,” McClary said. “We love sourcing local products and the history of the rice makes it more special.”
Currently, Lowe’s Foods is the only grocery store chain that carries Andy’s Charleston Gold Rice.
Part of the proceeds from sales of Andy’s rice go to The Andy Quattlebaum and Blackwell Family Foundation (AQBFF.ORG). The foundation is committed to honoring Andy’s legacy of compassion, caring, and positive energy that he showed family, friends, and organizations to which he was dedicated. The Foundation is focused on supporting a variety of initiatives important to Andy: Education, Conservation, Community Enrichment, Veterans, Animals and Veterinary Schools.
Current foundation initiatives include but are not limited to: The Andy Quattlebaum Outdoor Education Center – Clemson University, Andy Quattlebaum Complex; Smoky Mountain Service Dog Veteran/Canine Training Center; and The Andy Quattlebaum Distinguished Chair in Infectious Disease Research – College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State.
Several local groups have toured White House Farms to see first-hand how the Quattlebaums are continuing the Georgetown County rice tradition. One group, from Brookgreen Gardens, toured the rice farm during harvesting.
Ashley Gray, vice president of retail services at Brookgreen, said the group was interested in learning about the process of growing and harvesting rice.
“Brookgreen is composed of four former rice plantations,” she said. “We were impressed that White House Farms is going to be all inclusive, from growing the rice to harvesting and packaging and everything.”
Sarah Miles, social and digital media marketing manager for Brookgreen, agreed, adding that she was amazed at how Quattlebaum and his small team have overcome so many obstacles to produce the rice.
“From start to finish, it is a difficult process every step of the way,” she said. “So, it is fascinating, and it is amazing that we are able to be a part of it.”
Hobcaw Barony, a 16,00-acre history and scientific research center near Georgetown, recently held a special tour of White House Farms for the public. Richard Camlin, director of education at Hobcaw Barony, led the tour.
“We try and take participants to off-site places once or twice a year that are connected to Hobcaw in some way,” he said. “In this case, it’s the rice that connects the two properties and I wanted to give people an opportunity to see the crop growing that made Georgetown.”
He said he wanted them to see the rice and smell it in the fields.
“I wanted them to understand what it takes to put the product in our stores and then to ponder the situation in the 1700s and 1800s that was only made possible by enslaved people,” Camlin said.
Quattlebaum said he welcomes groups to White House Farms for special tours.
“We are happy to host visitors through Hobcaw Barony because they are vital to keeping the history of the area alive and do such a wonderful job of outreach,” Quattlebaum said. “Since rice and Georgetown have such a rich history, it’s great to have a partnership with Hobcaw in this way.”
For more information about White House Farms and Andy’s Charleston Gold and Andy’s Santee Gold rices, visit the company’s website here.
By Clayton Stairs / tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®