This Alexander County Farmer Grows and Sells High-Protein ‘Cahokia’ Rice
Blake Gerard’s family has farmed land at the southern tip of Illinois – within walking distance of the Mississippi River – for 100 years. The river can be friend or foe, sometimes both. But the Great Flood of 1993, followed by more record flooding in 1995 and 1997, nearly drowned Gerard’s farm.
“It was either find something that would grow under water or go out of business,” recalls Gerard, who was then in his 20s. He considered raising fish, but ultimately turned to rice, planting his first crop in 1999 and becoming the first farmer in Illinois to do so.
His neighbors scratched their heads. “You can’t grow rice here because it’s too cold” was the common refrain. Yet Gerard saw Missouri farmers planting 200,000 acres of rice just across the river from him and believed it could work.
Today, Blake Gerard Farms grows soybeans and rice on about 3,000 acres in Union and Alexander counties, with roughly half his acreage in rice. Only about six other Illinois farmers grow rice, partly because grading the land with precision leveling is expensive and a big barrier to entry. “Once you get your ground set up for it, rice works well here,” says Gerard, a member of the Pulaski-. “It’s a natural fit.”
Using Mother Nature for Water, Soil Conservation
Flooding a rice field with 2 to 4 inches of water helps control weeds. Gerard diverts muddy, sediment-filled water from the Mississippi River onto his fields and runs it through a series of grade-stabilization structures. “The water looks like chocolate milk when it comes in,” Gerard says. “By the time it makes it to the end of the field, all the sediment has dropped out and what comes out looks like something you could drink.” Any leftover water flows back into the Mississippi.
He lets Mother Nature help him with soil conservation, too. After harvest, Gerard plugs his rice fields and keeps a shallow flood of rainwater on them all winter. This attracts waterfowl, especially geese, who essentially till the ground by repeatedly turning the stubble over while looking for food. “They’re decomposing the stubble for us.”
See more: Following the 4Rs for Conservation
Honoring the Cahokia People
Through raising rice seed, Gerard connected with scientists at Louisiana State University (LSU). Researchers at LSU developed a high-protein rice from the Cypress variety, which Gerard says is highly prized for its taste, texture and appearance. Gerard and a business partner bought the rights to grow the high-protein rice in Illinois, and they began marketing it under the brand name Cahokia Rice in early 2018. The name, Gerard says, pays homage to the native Cahokia people who were the original grain farmers in his part of the state. Today, about 20% of Gerard’s rice production is Cahokia Rice, a percentage he hopes to increase.
Cahokia has 1.5 times the protein content of typical rice, Gerard says. “Plant-based protein is really becoming the ‘in’ thing right now,” he says. Nutritionists tell Gerard the carb-to-protein ratio in Cahokia Rice positively impacts the body’s response to blood sugar. In addition, chefs tell him they like the rice’s higher protein content. Food service accounts for 75% of Cahokia Rice’s sales. The University of Illinois and Illinois State University are customers, along with fine restaurants such as Epiphany Farms Restaurant in Bloomington and Firefly Grill in Effingham. Grocery stores in St. Louis and Illinois and several co-op markets carry it, too.
Gerard says many people don’t realize rice is grown in the United States, let alone Illinois. “But yes, it is possible to grow rice in Illinois and grow it as a premium farm-to-table rice that is both nutritious and delicious.
“If I was going to farm these lands so close to the river, I knew I had to work with the water, not against it,” he adds.
[infobox alignment=”full” title=”About the Farm”]
Cahokia Rice/Blake Gerard Farms
31778 Lynn Ln.
McClure, IL 62957
Where to buy: Find Cahokia Rice online through its website or Amazon, or at County Market stores throughout Illinois, Dierbergs Markets in the St. Louis area, Pete’s Fresh Markets in Chicago, Harvest Market in Champaign, Green Top Grocery in Bloomington, Neighborhood Co-op Grocery in Carbondale and Peter Rubi in Plainfield.
Phone: (618) 661-1060