Since 2016, USA Rice’s Foodservice Farm & Mill Tour program has played a central role in how we tell our story to the critical foodservice world. It creates a bridge from the field to the plate, connecting our growers and millers with the foodservice folks who are so uniquely positioned to bring U.S. rice’s story to the consumer. Over the years it has reached dozens of influential chefs, writers, and industry professionals, inspiring their creativity and passion for food, and expanding their understanding and appreciation of U.S.-grown rice.
The program began in Arkansas when we took a few chefs to the fields and mill of Windmill Rice in Jonesboro. The next year, the tour went to Arbuckle, California to the fields, dryers and mill of Sun Valley Rice, and we expanded attendees to include dieticians representing Division I NCAA sport programs.
The following year we got bigger still, responding to chef’s interest in aromatic varieties. We went to the Zaunbrecher’s farm in Rayne, Louisiana, to see and smell the jasmine rice the brothers were growing, and then off to the Falcon Rice Mill and Supreme Rice Mill in Crowley.
We also added a sustainability angle, taking everyone to the Grosse Savanne Lodge in Lake Charles so they could see first-hand the relationship between rice and waterfowl habitat.
In 2019, we went to back to culinary roots in Mississippi, taking the chefs to dryers and farms in Washington County and to the Mars Foods Mill in Greenville. We added a TV-style cooking competition for the chefs at the Viking Cooking School with great prizes and bragging rights.
But then the pandemic hit and the reality of taking chefs out to farms and mills in 2020 became all but impossible. So we pivoted to a virtual tour that has several advantages, beyond not getting your boots muddy.
First, we were able to “take” attendees to geographically diverse locations. We visited fields in Illinois and California, and we went back to the Sun Valley Rice Mill. Second, we’re able to reach many more foodservice professionals with the video — a walking mill tour and rides on combines does severely limit the number of participants. Third, we’re able to see more of the process — from field prep to planting, through harvest, drying, milling and packaging.
We also added a tour host. It’s James Beard-nominated chef Jerome Grant who loves talking about U.S.-grown rice. (By the way, Grant went on our 2019 tour in Mississippi if you were wondering.)
Attendees at the 2021 USA Rice Outlook Conference got a preview of the tour video, but now it’s available for all. Digital advertising in the foodservice space direct chefs and decision makers to the video on our dedicated foodservice webpage (www.thinkrice.com/farmtour), and you can see it too on the USA Rice YouTube page.
We can’t wait to get our foodservice visitors back out in the field, and we’re making plans to do just that in 2022. But in the meantime, I’m thrilled we have been able to keep the important program alive and even expand our reach. Attendees and viewers take what they learn in the program back to their restaurants and menus, their hometowns, their social media platforms, and their fanbases beyond, and that makes it time well spent.