Bootheel farm embraces sustainability, which is reflected in its packaged rice

castor river farms rice

Castor River Farms packages and markets single-variety white and brown rice.

Whether at industry group annual meetings or during Web-based seminars, the message remains the same: Agriculture has to do a better job telling its story to try to connect with consumers, who are generations removed from their agrarian roots.

Many of these same consumers are clueless about the source of their food, other than they purchased it at Kroger, HEB or Rouses.

Castor River Farms of Essex, Missouri, doesn’t take the challenge lightly and balances nicely between marketing and storytelling.

I recently was introduced to the family-owned operation, which grows, mills and packages only the rice it produces in the Bootheel of Missouri.

What hit me first was the elegant package design consisting of a stand-up pouch with a zippered closure. The translucent material allows shoppers to view the rice grains but still provides a palette for artwork.

The stand-up pouch, which is common in the produce sector, also provides more real estate for design than the typical flat rice bag. Truth be told, consumers shop with their eyes, so this type of packaging is definitely an eye catcher.

The package also features a “Grown in the USA” logo as well as a large, prominently placed “Missouri Grown USA” sticker. This helps educate shoppers that Missouri does, indeed, grow rice – a fact many consumers are surprised to learn.

The operation only mills and packages what it grows. And unlike some mills that mix different varieties or types of rice, Castro River Farms’ packs a single cultivar. This is akin to a varietal wine, which only contains one grape variety, compared to a wine blend that may contain several.

As a consumer, I also appreciate the pack’s convenient zippered closure. With regular bags of rice, I usually open them and dump the rice into a jar to keep it fresh. If I keep the rice in the bag and use a clip to close it, it never fails – I don’t put the clip on tightly and end up spilling rice on the floor.

The back of the package provides a brief narrative of Castor River Farms’ sustainable farming practices as well as convenient cooking instructions. If consumers want more information, they’re directed to the farms’ website, www.castorriverfarms.com.

Beauty is more than skin deep

As the old adage goes, beauty is more than skin — or in this case, package — deep, and that’s where owner Johnny Hunter and his family’s back story of their road to sustainability really shines.

It took some financial hardships in the early 2010s to prompt the third-generation producer to look at a different way of farming. Slowly, he began planting cover crops, reducing tillage and moving to a true no-till system. In the process, Hunter saw soil erosion and weed pressures decrease, water infiltration increase and overall soil organic matter begin to inch upward.

Along with the changes also came a reduction in inputs, whether from the diesel used to power tractors or from less fertilizer and fewer herbicide applications.

To move into no-till, Hunter switched to row rice, where the crop is not flooded but irrigated down the rows much like corn or soybeans. This allowed Hunter to use the same beds for rice that he previously used for beans or corn.

No need to disk up a field, unless it was significantly rutted and needed some touch up.

To help guide row-rice irrigation, he installed soil moisture sensors to apply water when the crop needs it rather than by the calendar.

All of these changes translate to a more sustainable operation, which helps Castor River Farms’ bottom line. But the effort also resonates well with buyers and consumers alike, who have ranked sustainability as one of their top 10 food requirements.

Over the years, Hunter has shared his experiences with fellow farmers and National Resources Conservation Service representatives. For his efforts, he received the 2016 Missouri Agriculture Environmental Steward Award, given to a producer who is an “example of environmental stewardship while also improving production and profitability.”

That same year, Hunter also was part of the Missouri Delta Soil Health Alliance that received the NRCS Central Region Group Volunteer Award. The group promotes the benefits of soil health management in southeastern Missouri. It was selected by a national panel that reviewed nominations from groups within NRCS’ 12-state Central Region.

Cheryl Hoback, Missouri NRCS State Earth Team coordinator, says the group was organized in 2014 by landowners and farmers who understand the value of soil health for the sustainability of their operations

The alliance, which works in conjunction with NRCS staff in Dexter, is designed to educate other southeastern Missouri farmers.

— Vicky Boyd, Editor