Standing by his field with a slingshot, a farmer picks birds off his rice paddy with fast pebbles. A birds screeches and flaps off after a near miss, and the farmer stops to laugh a second as he bends down to tend the boiling rice pot bubbling away near his feet.
His name is Mami Niriana Rakoto, and like many Malagasy farmers—eight out of ten people in Madagascar are farmers—Rakoto literally lives off rice. He eats nearly a kilo of it a day (60–70 percent of his calories) and his income is based on whatever he can sell or trade of his surplus production. Rakoto plants, cultivates, and harvests his fields with just one tool: the angady, a simple handmade spade.
His wife weaves baskets to use when she and their children carry rice seedlings. Their hectare and a half of land is a kilometer from the Andasibe reserve, and in the mornings Rakoto can hear the indiri indiri lemurs calling to each other in the swaying Palissander trees of the park.
When he has extra rice to sell, Rakoto will add his sack to the cart, pulled by a thin-shanked Zebu cow, his neighbor takes to market in Moramanga, A Zebu also pulls the plow in Rakoto’s field, unlike in the many areas of Madagascar where the use of a plow is forbidden by a complicated taboo system called fady. In the areas where plows are fady, the farmers simply walk the Zebu over the fields they break the soil and aerate the mud with their hooves.
Rakoto and his family eat rice three times a day: at breakfast cooked in porridge with some wild greens, at lunch with chili peppers and salt, and at dinnertime accompanied with stewed chicken, or fried eggs, black-eye peas, lentils, or pounded cassava leaves cooked in oil. With his meal he drinks rano-pangu, water boiled with the burned crust of rice in the cooking pot, and after dinner he drinks toka-gasy, the sticky-sweet rum he makes from the stand of cane sugar at the edge of his fields.
Rakoto eats only the rice he grows, but most of the city-dwelling Malagasy depend on imported rice. Pakistani rice is the same price as the local, or slightly more expensive, but it is always cleaner than the Malagasy product. Farmers like Rakoto dry their rice on the ground and mill and husk it with a pestle and mortar; the final product is thus dirty and broken.
All rice grown in Madagascar fetches the same price at market, but there is one rice—a dusty red grain—that sells out before the others. Called varymena in local dialect, the red rice is considered Madagascar’s indigenous variety. Probably, the Indonesian settlers who colonized Madagascar around 1000 brought white Japonica varities with them, which mixed with the local wild strains. The result is a half-African half-Asian variety with a rich nutty flavor. According to local folk knowledge, the best varymena is always reserved for the elderly and the infirm, as it is thought to be more nutritious than white rice.
Rakoto cultivates a patch of varymena in his paddy, just for home use, but the cultivation of the red rice is increasingly rare. Because of its wild heritage, varymena gives lower yields than the regular varieties. Red rice doesn’t fetch a higher price at the local markets, and what does arrive at market in the cities is poorly processed and sometimes sells for much less than the clean imported white varieties.
However, varymena has been shown to have the potential for higher yields—and using new agricultural techniques with this ancient variety may give new promise to commercial cultivation. Combining that with higher prices for red rice, which continues to have a high reputation for taste in city and country dwellers alike, could bring new hope to farmers like Rakoto.
Anya Fernald is an American food writer and campaigner. She is currently organizing the mega-event Slow Food Nation, which will take place in San Francisco at the end of August.