Giving a nod to the good Lord isn’t that uncommon among farmers, considering how tightly their livelihood is bound up in the rain and soil and sun. It’s more rare when the Almighty waves back, however, as he did when Tim and Robin Ralston and family began sowing exotic red and purple aromatic rice varieties to serve niche markets.
Nature’s Blend is a cross-pollinated blend of exotic and traditional rice. There was only a 3 percent chance of this rice cross-pollinating, as rice is self-pollinating.
“Those two varieties were developed over the last 10 or 12 years, but they really haven’t gotten into the market because they’re so new and they’re so unique,” Tim said. “We’re in a position where it fits us great. We started with a handful of seeds and over the last four or five years we’ve developed it and blown it up.”
One year, some of the exotics cross-pollinated with some volunteer traditional rice in the field. The result was a crop that grows a confetti of flavors, colors and textures that Ralston Family Farms markets as Nature’s Blend, although internally they have another name for it.
“We also call it God’s Blend because that’s really the only way for it to come into effect,” Robin said. “There’s only a 3 percent chance of it cross-pollinating, because rice is self-pollinating. So for it to do that was kind of a minor miracle.”
It took a moment for the Ralstons to recognize the blessing that they’d been sent. Not really knowing what they had, they gave samples to Arkansas television personality P. Allen Smith and several chefs to get their opinion.
“We primarily gave it to Chef Shane Henderson with Ben E. Keith,” Robin recalled. “We could have called it Chef Shane’s Rice, too, because we wouldn’t have it if he didn’t say, ‘Hey, you’re onto something here. This is great.’”
Ralston Family Farms already had a thriving traditional rice operation going when it decided to become one of the few domestic growers of specialty rice varieties. As such, it’s landed accounts with retail, institutional, independent retailers and high-end grocery store clients.
The farm also supplies rice to mail-order meal company Blue Apron, which was as captivated by the Ralstons’ field-to-fork operational practices—including conservation-forward no-till, zero-grade and surface watering techniques—as it was by the end product.
“We were a good fit for them because they liked the fact that we could source the product all the way back to the field,” Tim said. “That gives them some transparency that they can offer to their customer.”
Getting to this point took more than just planting unfamiliar rice varieties. It also took a carefully orchestrated business plan to produce rice in marketable quantities. Tim said there are good reasons why typical rice farmers stay away from nontraditional varieties.
“Most production agriculture is geared on yield. Farmers grow what there’s a market for and what yields the most,” he said. “The typical Southern long grain rice, the hybrids, they’ll yield 200-plus bushels [per acre], where jasmine might yield more like 150 bushels.”
Another major challenge is processing—or milling —the harvest as the vast majority of rice mills in the United States are owned by corporations that share the same mentality of efficiency through homogeneity. This meant growers have virtually no cost-efficient way to process nontraditional varieties short of the audacious step of building their own mill. Which, incidentally, is exactly what the Ralstons did.
Left to right: Tim Ralston, Robin Ralston, Willie Bruehwiler, Jennifer Bruehwiler, Hadley Ralston, Ashley Ennis, Jamie Ennis, Matthew Ralston (in back), Brittani Ralston. Will Bruehwiler and Ruby Bruehwiler on tractor.
“[Mills] generally don’t deal in niche products because if you grow rice, she grows rice, and I grow rice and we deliver it to the mill, at some point it’s all going to end up in the same bin,” Tim said. “They don’t want to complicate life by having a bunch of different offerings.”
Ralston’s facility, which has been in operation for a little more than a year, looms out of the Pope County landscape beside a phalanx of drying bins. The guts of the mill are a mélange of high-tech wizardry that cleans, inspects, sorts, color-grades and packages the company product, a growing percentage of which is of the exotic variety.
Walking through the place at lunchtime-—on a day the sparkling production area was at rest and you can hear a grain of basmati drop—Tim paused and looked around with something approaching awe. It wasn’t that long ago this operation was just a distant point of light, but now it’s here and ready to take the operation to levels previously undreamed-of.
“The rice mill is just another arm of the farm, really,” he said. “It allows us to be vertically integrated to where we can take it from the field all the way to the shelf.”
Ralston Rice Comes In Convenient, Easy-To-Store And Easy-To-Pour Packaging.
Neither Tim nor Robin holds a degree handy to engineering such a facility or the myriad sales and marketing details for bringing their exotic rice to market. Robin likes to joke the former high school sweethearts now have “honorary degrees” in all of the above and are assisted daily by their three children and their families who have all returned to work in the family business.
And, she says, there’s something else, too.
“The biggest factor in here was prayer,” she said. “We didn’t want to do it if the Lord didn’t lead us to it.”