Growing rice in New Jersey sounds, on the face of it, impossible. Even more so when the rice is certified organic and comes in five varieties that pretty much cover the entire spectrum that we cook with, including white, brown, and black; short, medium, and long grain; and specialized for risotto and sushi. But that is exactly what Jim and Kathy Lyons have accomplished at Blue Moon Acres Farm in Pennington.
The first rice crop was harvested in 2014; this fall, Jim Lyons says he just finished harvesting 12,000 pounds from the three acres he planted. One-pound bags of Blue Moon Acres rice are sold at the farm’s own markets in Pennington and Buckingham, Bucks County, at their stand in the Stockton Market, and online.
Blue Moon Acres first gained notice as a pioneer in the production of microgreens starting back in 1993, soon after the Lyonses had purchased their first farm, in Buckingham. The tiny gourmet greens quickly became the darling of top-tier chefs in New York City and elsewhere. (Even decades later, when the rice was introduced, the first wholesale customer was the renowned Gramercy Tavern.) These days, local customers can find the microgreens not only at the three farm markets, but also at all McCaffrey’s markets, the Whole Earth Center, and Lucy’s Kitchen & Market.
Blue Moon Acres rice is field-grown, not in paddies flooded with water. When asked what possessed him to think he could grow premium rice in central New Jersey, Jim Lyons starts at the very beginning of his personal and professional path. “There are a couple of different ways of looking at this. I had an interest in agriculture after I graduated from college,” he says.
After graduating from Lafayette College in Easton, PA, where he had majored in psychology, he went up to Boston. “I was studying Oriental healing and was very close to the point of studying acupuncture, but decided instead to go in the direction of agriculture,” despite, he says a complete lack of background in that area. “I was working in the natural foods industry for a time and I realized, looking at Oriental healing, how important food is.”
That led him ultimately to care about how food is produced. “And a big part of healthy diets seemed to me to include good-quality whole grains. Rice, in particular, is kind of fascinating in that it doesn’t require any additional processes other than cooking. You have to grind wheat into a flour, so in that sense there’s more processing required. With rice, you just husk it and cook it.” Lyons also notes that people who have issues with gluten do not seems to have similar digestive issues with rice.
The handful of rice growers in the Northeast, including Jim and Kathy Lyons, are each devising their own field-grown method — almost never paddy style.
Jim Lyons began experimenting with growing rice 30 years ago, when he and Kathy founded the Buckingham farm. “I got a variety from a friend, Chris Elwell, who’s up in South River Miso Company in Massachusetts. I thought, well if he can grow it up there I should be able to grow it here. It did well, but of course 30 years ago I had no way of husking it or doing anything other than growing it. Kathy was trying to figure out why I was wasting my time messing around growing rice.”
Fast forward to 2007 and the couple added the Pennington farm to their holdings: 63 acres on Willow Creek Road that received its organic certification three years later. Jim was in the process of deciding what crops to grow there when one day he was browsing at Essene, the natural foods market and cafe in Philadelphia. “A magazine cover caught my eye. The story was about Chris Elwell! I was intrigued, contacted him, and asked him if I could get some seed from him. He said, sure, so we started seeding it and each year kept refining our process.” Through Elwell, Lyons connected with rice researchers at Cornell University and other New England rice growers. “I got a sense of, maybe this isn’t such a crazy idea, maybe it can work. So that’s one angle.”
The other angle, Lyons says, has everything to do with Michael Pollan’s 2001 book, “The Botany of Desire.” “What intrigues me is he talks about corn using us to take over the planet and I wondered if rice is interested in taking over the planet, too,” he says. The handful of rice growers in the Northeast, including Lyons, are each devising their own method — almost never paddy style. “While paddy growing has some advantages in rice yield,” he says, “it seems to create conditions for greater absorption of arsenic.”
Alarming levels of arsenic in rice grown both in the U.S. and around the world came to public attention in part when the FDA proposed action to limit the harmful amounts routinely found in infant rice cereal. “Because here we grow dry-land style, we don’t have that issue,” Lyons says. “Our levels have been tested and are very, very low — in some cases undetectable. On the down side, it’s a lot more work.”
Rice, it turns out, is not an aquatic plant. “It merely tolerates the paddy; it doesn’t necessarily thrive in it,” Lyon explains. “The thing with the flooding — aside from issues like what it does to the pH and how nitrogen behaves in soil, etc. — mainly it’s for convenience. But I’m not interested in growing paddy style, I’m trying to figure out how we can do this more efficiently.”
He and his crew have ideas in that regard and are developing equipment for growing and harvesting more efficiently. “If our ideas work, then we might have something of more significance here,” he says.
Despite its price tag of $10 per pound, sales of all Blue Moon Acres rice varieties are brisk. “I was curious to see how the rice would sell when we started at the Stockton Market last year,” Lyons confesses. Turns out, he worried needlessly. Customers — especially, he notes, female customers — immediately began noticing the difference. “Our rice is so fresh! No one really thinks in terms of fresh grain, but I started noticing early on that our brown rice didn’t have a smell attached to it, and I was used to a smell. So I bought a bag of California rice and, sure enough, there’s that smell — and it’s not really a good smell.
People, mainly women, Lyons says, with finely tuned noses noticed that rice often smells bad, like rancid oil. “Come to learn,” says Lyons, “those lipids in the grain are very volatile. Given one humid day, rice can grow rancid — that’s all it takes. Rice is like wheat: you have to remove its protective husk, the rice potentially starts oxidizing, and those oils can start to turn.”
‘People ask what’s in the mix besides the rice and I say, well, it’s just the rice. They are just that pleasantly surprised at the flavor.’
“We mill our rice every week, sometimes twice a week so it’s always fresh. Every bag has a date on it,” he says. As for storage, “Keep it cool and dry. If you’re going to be hanging onto your rice for a while, put it in a glass jar in your fridge. If you have a warm pantry, sure, basmati moths or grain moths can be flying around and land on it and start laying eggs. So put it in your refrigerator. But really our thinking is, hey, we’re here milling our rice every week, just come and get it as you need it.”
Blue Moon Acres’ certified black-and-tan rice is one of his big sellers. A blend of aromatic brown and black rice, it turns purple when cooked. “It has exceptional texture and flavor,” Lyons says. “People ask what’s in the mix besides the rice and I say, well, it’s just the rice. They are just that pleasantly surprised at the flavor.”
His personal go-to rice is the medium grain brown rice. (Blue Moon Acres also offers long-grain brown rice). “When I sit down for a meal where there’s just rice, beans, and vegetables, or maybe rice with a tofu stir-fry if it’s vegetarian night, it holds its own as the centerpiece of the meal,” he says.
Lyons sampled many rice suitable for risotto and settled on Martelli, a medium-size risotto rice that he says holds onto its firm texture while cooking up to creamy consistency. Lyons, who cooks often, swears it also maintains the perfect texture longer out of the pan than the more widely known arborio, carnaroli, or vialone nano. This past season he also grew and harvested not only sushi rice, but also sweet (glutinous) rice, which is most commonly used to make mochi. He is contemplating growing bomba rice, used for paella, next season.
Jim and Kathy, who have three grown children (the eldest, Ashley Lyons Putman, heads up Blue Moon Acre’s sales and marketing department) met when they were both studying at the Kushi Institute, the educational center for macrobiotics based in Becket, Massachusetts. “Kathy was living down here; I was kind of free floating, wanting to really sink my teeth into something. At the time, I was just trying to figure out what I was doing on the planet and how I can help.”
Asked what led him to his philosophy of farming this way, Lyons, 61, cringes, saying he has worked with so many talented people. (His enterprise currently employs about 60.) But he does credit one of his early teachers with planting the seed. “He said ‘Are you choosing the food you eat or is the food choosing you?’”
Among the other inspirations this widely read farmer cites are: a TED talk titled “Stroke of Insight,” by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro-anatomist at Harvard who had a brain hemorrhage and was forced to rely on one side of her brain; the spiritual teacher and author Eckhardt Tolle (“The Power of Now and A New Earth”); David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, for his book “The Road to Character”; and Paul Hawken, the environmentalist.
Lyons points out that his farm equipment uses bio-diesel, that all the farm buildings, including the market, are geothermally heated and cooled, and he is most proud of the new array of solar panels, which went online in October. His dream is that agriculture can wean itself off fossil fuels. “The guys at John Deere are working on electric tractors and Elon Musk is working on electric pickup trucks,” he says by way of example.
“There are people out there who define conventional agriculture as use of land to convert fossil fuels into food. When you stop and think about it, that’s a fairly accurate statement.” He speaks extensively about how chemical fertilizers that feed nitrogen into the soil are destroying the soil’s microbiology. “Unless,” he points out, “you have an organic farm like ours, where you’re relying on soil microbiology to work your nitrogen.” He is hoping to preserve that natural microbiology by “working toward lessening the amount of tillage that we do.”
All the rice is harvested using a small, simple combine. “We either dry it or clean it for use as seed,” he says. “We then clean it further to remove dust, chaff, and sometimes stems and stalks. Then the rice gets dried down to between 12 and 14 percent moisture so that it stores well. Anything more than that you have mold issues.” The rice is then hermetically sealed in bags, where it stays until it’s ready for milling and packaging.
“We’re fortunate in that we have this simple technology,” Lyons says. “We’ve visited rice paddies in Italy and this past summer we visited a farm in the Camargue region of southern France,” he says. “Down the street were massive rice silos The whole area is having salt problems, with brackish water. The water is falling out of the paddies back into the roads. We’re looking to see if we can create something here that environmentally is much less problematic. I’m hopeful!”