Friday, September 27, 2013 —
It may look like tall grass, but some of the greenery along U.S. 52 in Albemarle is actually rice.
Right off the highway between North First Street and North Second Street, the Ly family, owners of Ly Cuisine restaurant in Albemarle, maintain a rice field.
“From a far distance, it looks like grass. Especially if it doesn’t have the spurs or seeds or any of that,” said Nhia Ly, whose parents own and maintain the field.
“A couple years back as the rice was starting to grow it actually got mowed down. ... The DOT has the right of way there, like 10 feet or so. My mother doesn’t plant it every year, it's hard work, and when they don’t plant it, (DOT) just mows it to keep it pretty and all that. ... That day DOT was out there cutting the grass and they cut down the field. ... Mom was pretty upset, it was a lot of work. ... We put a big ‘do not mow’ sign after that.”
Xang and Kia Ly, Nhia’s parents, have maintained the field off and on for about 20 years. Kia, Nhia’s mother, planted the field this year when she heard that her own mother would be coming to visit from France.
The visit had to be cancelled due to visa issues, but Kia and Xang have continued with growing the rice.
Traditionally rice is planted in wetlands, the Lys said.
“You actually plant the rice stalk into the wet soil where the water comes up to your knee. Here you have to adapt,” Zoua Ly, Nhia’s wife, said.
“My father-in-law actually shapes this bamboo stick and goes before my mother-in-law and kind of pokes the stick into the dirt and then she adds rice seed and folds the soil over it.”
The whole field is hand-tilled, hand-planted and hand-weeded and no chemical fertilizers are used on the plants.
While the field is near a natural creek bed, the Lys rely on the weather for the majority of their irrigation.
“This year has been really good because we’ve had a wet summer,” Nhia said.
The rice, planted around March, is just starting to reach maturity now.
“You can tell it’s ready when the kernels turn this yellow, orange color,” Nhia said.
Once the rice turns that color, Kia goes out with a sickle to harvest it. She cuts the stalks about six inches from the base and binds up the stalks in bundles.
“After that, she threshes it, beats the kernels off the stalks ... then she sun-dries it and removes the husks,” Zoua said.
The husks, which surround each grain of rice, are traditionally removed by digging a hole in the ground and pounding the kernels with a heavy object such as a log. While Zoua said there are some of these devices in the Morganton area, Kia removes her rice husks with a food processor.
However, the process still isn’t finished. After removing the husks, the husks must still be separated from the rice.
“(Kia) will put it on this round knitted basket and she’ll take it outside, hopefully on a good windy day, and she’ll shake it and the wind will blow the husks off the rice, because the rice is heavier,” Zoua said.
“It’s amazing how she does it so clean. In the beginning you’re like OK, how is she going to get that all off, but she just shakes it and shakes it.”
Xang, Nhia’s father, said their field is one of two or three rice fields in Stanly County. He said there are more fields in Cabarrus County, but the largest concentrations are in the Morganton and Hickory areas.
Zoua said people don’t realize how diverse Stanly County is.
“I honestly don’t think you can just call this a small town; it has as much diversity as anywhere else. We get a lot of customers from pretty much all over the world. ... It’s a unique aspect to what makes this community what it is.”
The Lys themselves are Hmong, an ethnic tribe of Laos. While their restaurant is labeled as Thai food, Nhia said his parents are actually from the mountainous areas of that island.
“During the Vietnam War, my father, he took part in the war. He was in the army which helped the CIA,” Nhia said.
“The promise was that when the war ended, since my father and the Hmong people helped the Americans, they would be given refuge in America.”
When the war ended, the Lys put in for refugee status. First Lutheran Church in Albemarle, which the Lys are still members of today, sponsored their move to the U.S.
“We came here in 1976, so we’ve been here 37 years in Albemarle. Our family grew up here,” Nhia said.
The Lys estimate there are about 250 Hmong families in Stanly County today.
“(Growing rice) reminds them of being back in Laos. My mother-in-law, she never went to school, that’s all she did growing up. She was the oldest child in her family, that was her job to help out with aunts and uncles, mom and dad, in the fields. ... It has a healing, therapeutic meaning for them,” Zoua said.
Back in Laos, there are traditional celebration feasts after the rice harvest, much like American Thanksgiving.
The Lys and other Hmong families gather for such a celebration every year.
“Most Americans can’t tell the difference between sticky rice or jasmine rice, but to people who’ve grown up on rice, they love it.”
Nhia said the amount of rice they grow is only enough for about two big meals like this. While other rice farmers may sell their product, the Lys mostly use their rice for this harvest celebration.
“It’s a way of honoring that culture,” Nhia said.
“I call it a labor of love. (Kia) grew it for her mom’s visit. ... It’s a way of honoring her, too,” Zoua said.
To submit story ideas, contact Shannon Beamon at (704) 982-2121 ext. 24 or at shannon@stanlynews press. com.