One of my minor goals for 2016 is to learn more about rice. That’s right: rice. I eat it all the time but I don’t know anything about it.

I have pal who is an agricultural economist and he asks how I can remain so concertedly ignorant about so many important topics. Well, it’s easy, really; all it takes is a little practice.

For example, how rice gets from soil to plate is a mystery to me. Every time I try to read up on it I get lost in a thicket of biology terms. Descriptions of the post-harvest processing don’t shed any light on things either. Until I get to see the relevant steps with my own eyes I guess I’ll have no idea how any of this works.

Rice is part of daily life on Saipan, of course, but that’s not a universal situation. For example, there are large areas of the mainland where it’s pretty much invisible. When I was growing up my family would have it once or twice a year because it’s an element of some old Southern recipes, but, outside of that, I rarely, if ever, saw it.

The first time I was exposed to rice on a daily basis was when I worked aboard merchant ships in the tropical Pacific. Various ships pulled their crews from various regions: Asia, South America, Central America, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe. Americans were rare. Rice wasn’t. It was served at every meal.

It wasn’t always served in the same way, though. I spent some time on one ship where the crew had such rotten teeth that the rice was cooled to room temperature with ice cubes before it was served. On that same ship, incidentally, prime rib would be ground into a paste so it could be gummed down, also at room temperature, by the crew.

As a commodity, rice isn’t as glittery as gold, silver, or even oil, so you don’t often hear about it in the general financial news. Rice has so many varieties that, unlike, say, gold, it can’t all be traded as one broad category. The broadest category I’m aware of is “rough rice,” which trades in contracts of 2,000 hundredweight, which, for the rest of us, means 200,000 pounds.

I’ve never traded rice, nor even looked into it, and every commodity has its own weird way of pricing things out. If I’m reading the quotes correctly, it looks like rough rice is trading at about 11 cents per pound.

Given that rice takes a lot of land and labor to grow, I’ve got no idea how farmers fare when they’re getting pennies per pound for their output. Maybe I’m missing something here.

Or maybe not. I took a look at prices for Thai “Grade B” rice, quoted as FOB Bangkok, and it was $369 per ton earlier in December. So that’s about 18 cents per pound. Thailand premium jasmine rice was about twice as much, at $728 a ton, or 36 cents per pound. Complicated business, this. Anyway, the wide variety of rices drives a wide range of prices.

The Japanese addressed the price dynamics a long time ago, and in the 17th century established the world’s first futures market in order to trade rice contracts.

Buying rice is one thing, but cooking it also entails costs. I used to be oblivious to fact that there was any such thing as a “rice cooker,” but now I know that the round appliance on the kitchen counter carries a Zojirushi label and a $400 price tag. Among Zojirushi aficionados, which would be just about everyone I know these days, the made-in-Japan models command a dear premium.

On the simpler end of the spectrum, my wife remembers cooking rice over firewood when she was growing up. She told me that the cost or even mere availability of fuel (wood, propane, electricity, etc.) is a big deal in some places. Once cooked, there is then the matter of keeping it warm, so this preparation thing is no small element of life.

The country that grows the most rice, by far, is China. India grows the second most. Nobody else comes close to these two, though the list of nations that grow rice is surprisingly long.

I’ve got rice on my mind today because we’re traveling for the holidays and haven’t seen so much as a grain of rice since we left home. So, while I don’t know how it grows, I do know that it grew on me, so to speak, and I’m looking forward to the next time I can lay eyes on something that used to be invisible to me.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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