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After a Devastating Tornado, McKaskle Family Farm Transformed into Missouri's Only Organic Rice Farm

The once-organic cotton operation now sells rice, popcorn, polenta and more under the Braggadocio label.

  • 10 min to read

April 2, 2006 started out like any other Sunday for Steve and Kaye McKaskle. Although balmy, the afternoon stretched out quietly: Kaye reading a book and Steve writing an agricultural newsletter in their home in Braggadocio, Missouri. Steve had the news on in the background, but he soon took notice: A tornado was heading due east across Pemiscot County, in the extreme southeastern part of the Missouri Bootheel.

Steve went out to the front yard and saw the EF4 twister less than a mile away. Dirt and debris were everywhere, so they jumped into their car to drive just next door to the home of Gary Coppage, Kaye’s cousin. When they got there, the wind bent one car door in half and tore the other clean off.

“We ran in their house screaming, ‘Get in the basement!’” Steve recalls. “They didn’t even know there was a tornado. So we got in the basement, and a minute or two later we heard this, bang, bang, bang, bang, noise.

It didn’t last long at all. We came up and the whole top part of the house was gone.”

The devastation was total. More than 700 homes in nearby Caruthersville were destroyed; two people in Braggadocio were dead. McKaskle Family Farm, then an organic cotton and soybean operation, was almost entirely gone: The tornado ripped out a century-old barn and two 100-year-old pecan trees and destroyed tractors, farming equipment and the cotton gin – not to mention half of the McKaskles' home.

The den was pretty much the only room left intact in the couple’s house; Steve and Kaye slept on a mattress there for a few months while they rebuilt. That first night, though, they slept in their adult kids’ old bedroom, with no roof.

“We slept in their beds – it was a dry tornado – and you could see the stars,” Steve says, shaking his head. “All you could hear were chainsaws [from people working on debris] all night long.”

Because their cotton operation was decimated, the McKaskles had to rebuild from scratch. Steve had switched over to organic cotton in early 1993 and was selling his crop to Patagonia, and later, Levi’s and Nike. But after the tornado, he had the chance to make a change. He’d been talking to a rice mill in Arkansas about possibly getting into organic rice and decided to roll the dice.

“I called him and said, ‘We’re wiped out,’” Steve says. “‘And I would like to grow 80 acres of organic rice this year.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

***

Today, the McKaskles organically farm 3,200 acres of rice, corn, soybeans, wheat and popcorn; usually around 700 to 800 acres of that a year is dedicated to rice. What started as just an organic rice and popcorn business has now grown into a product line featuring rice flours, white cornmeal, white corn grits, polenta and popcorn cornmeal, all processed and milled on-site.

Rice farms like McKaskle Family Farm are common in southeast Missouri, although it’s the state’s only all-organic rice operation. Rice was first planted in the state in 1910, but commercial production really ramped up in the 1960s and 1970s; today Missouri is the fourth-largest producer of rice in the country. Almost all Missouri rice farms – 386 as of 2012, the last year numbers were made available – are located in the Bootheel. Natural flooding from the Mississippi River created fertile soil that supported millions of acres of forests and swamps that were cleared in the early 20th century and converted to farmland “perfectly suited for the wetland-style region that rice farming requires,” according to the Missouri Rice Council.

Steve first looked into organic farming after two decades of conventional farming in Braggadocio. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and his family moved to Caruthersville when he was in elementary school. In high school, he met Kaye. Kaye is a fifth-generation family farmer; her great-great grandfather is buried under a time-worn tombstone near the McKaskles’ house.

After Steve graduated from college, Kaye’s father convinced him to take up farming in Braggadocio, as there weren’t many young people doing so. Steve learned the cotton business from his father-in-law. “It was mostly a negative experience for 20 years,” Steve says. “Low prices, low yields, commodity market swings – there’s all kinds of things that are against the conventional farmer. And I was getting up to here with it.”

And then representatives from Esprit, the California-based clothing company, came to a farmers’ meeting at the University of Missouri Fisher Delta Research Center, looking for people growing organic cotton.

“They said they [were] gonna pay $1 a pound for the cotton lint when I was getting 35 cents; I was going, ‘Thank you, thank you!’” Steve says. “I got in for the price, mainly. We started farming organically, and the more I did it, the more I realized this was the right thing to do.”

Steve recalls with a laugh that his first organic inspection, in 1993, was a phone call from the Tennessee Land Stewardship Association, as the farm is only about 20 miles from its jurisdiction, with about five questions. Now, though, the requirements for organic certification are extensive and complicated, but in general, the use of synthetic substances such as fungicide and pesticide is prohibited, as is working with genetically modified seeds. Periodic inspection and testing is also required.

In 2007, a year after the tornado hit Braggadocio, McKaskle Family Farm relaunched with crops of organic long-grain rice and popcorn. In 2010, the couple decided to begin selling popcorn and rice under their own label, Braggadocio. Steve and Kaye were packaging their haul in clear bags with McKaskle stickers, building pallets in their living room and delivering to customers themselves.

As their customer base grew, the couple moved their packaging and storage into an old building next to the Braggadocio Post Office that Kaye owned, and built a 3,750-square-foot warehouse for the milling equipment and a cold-storage building. McKaskle now employs 17 people between the farm, office, mill and packaging and distribution.

Planting rice – a type of grass seed and cereal grain – begins in late April and runs into May; Steve and Kaye manage both their own fields and some fields for neighboring landowners as well, which they rent. All of the soil had to be laser-graded to provide the right type of irrigation for rice, which requires a lot of water, mostly for weed prevention. Soil is graded on a slight incline, and a system of small levees allows the McKaskles to control irrigation. After laser-grading their own fields, the McKaskles had to convince the owners of the land they rent to do the same.

“They thought we were nuts at first. Everybody thought we were crazy,” Steve says. “Nobody heard of organic when we started. It got where – and it still is – people are making real good rent, income, on land we’re farming. Which really helps. If we weren’t making any money, they wouldn’t do it. So we’ve got to make sure that we do it and still do it good enough where people can make a good income.”

Rice is harvested in October with a combine harvester; the soil is flooded all summer thanks to the irrigation and levees, but the stalks of rice aren’t submerged. It almost looks like tall grass from overhead.

McKaskle Family Farm keeps the crop from different farms separate from planting to harvesting through to processing and packaging. Steve’s also helping some local farmers transition from conventional to organic to produce transitional rice and other crops.

“We can tell you what farm your bag of rice came from,” he says. “That’s called knowing where your food comes from. It’s so important – transparency.”

Today, Steve says that his facilities are inspected for one certification or another – the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Crop Improvement Association, as well as entities to verify kosher certification, non-GMO grain processing and food safety – annually.

His staff? They inspect the rice every two hours.

***

The first line of defense in McKaskle’s organic rice mill is one of four very powerful magnets – a rare-earth double-drawer magnet, to be exact, which will catch any stray nuts, bolts, washers or even metal shavings. After rice is harvested, it’s deposited into one of several grain bins and stored until ready for processing. The rice is moved from the grain bins into the warehouse through the ceiling using special flexible pipes, past the first magnet and into the cleaner. This machine removes any sticks, straw or trash from the rice.

Next is the sheller, which sends grains of rice between two rubber wheels that separate the hard, pointy husk from the rice (which is later sold for chicken coop bedding). A second line of defense is the separator, which uses 12 trays to sift out any rice that didn’t get husked and pushes it through again.

After passing under another rare-earth magnet, the grains are then sent through an additional machine that removes the brown part of the rice, called rice bran. Rice bran is where rice holds its fiber and vitamins, so that’s sold separately for animal feed, though this step is obviously skipped when processing brown rice. Yet another machine removes broken grains of rice; there’s nothing wrong with them, but consumers want uniformly sized grains. At this point, head miller Sonya Driver takes a sample every hour to determine what percentage is broken and ensures it’s kept at 4 percent or less.

Steve’s favorite machine is the color sorter. This machine uses two specially calibrated cameras to catch anything coming through that’s black, brown, green or red and automatically removes any rejects. After passing a third magnet, a conveyor belt takes the rice through an X-ray machine looking for glass, ceramic, plastic and stainless steel, all of which the magnets won’t catch.

Driver tests the X-ray every two hours with samples of these contaminates; if even one of them is found, all the rice that’s been processed over the past two hours has to start over. Then, finally, it’s ready to be packaged (or milled further, in the case of white and brown rice flours, grits, polenta and cornmeal).

The flours, grits, polenta and cornmeal are ground to various sizes over in the warehouse next to the post office in a room off of the packaging area. Today, McKaskle uses three granite stone grinders ranging from eight to 20 inches to grind rice and popcorn. Their very first mill was made with only 8-inch stones, and Steve, Kaye and another employee would use screens to sift by hand.

“We were all sitting there shaking [the screens], and after 15 minutes I said, ‘This is not gonna work,’” Steve says with a laugh. He soon bought a sifting box that’s suspended from the ceiling by chains and, when operating, swings around like a hula hoop to shake flour, polenta, grits or cornmeal through the screens and out the bottom of the machine. The biggest grinder uses 20-inch stones – “That’s a hoss right there,” Steve says – which is primarily used for rice flour. The team currently fulfills a monthly 12,000-pound rice flour order in addition to its normal output, including 2,000 pounds a month to a bakery in Dallas. Although similar in flavor to white rice flour, brown rice flour is the only rice flour that has fiber, thanks to that nutrition-packed rice bran.

Stacked against the wall are box screens with wooden frames painted white. Numbers stamped on the side indicate the mesh size: 24 for rice flour, 18 for popcorn cornmeal, 12 for grits.

“The higher the number, the smaller the holes,” Steve says, pulling out a tray. “Look at that – I mean, you can’t even see the holes! That’s for very, very fine rice flour. Normally we [use] 24 mesh, but some people want a talcum-powder consistency.”

In an adjoining room, an employee is filling bags with popcorn kernels, sending them down a conveyor belt through a machine that simultaneously seals the bags and stamps them with an expiration date in instant-dry ink. At the end of the short conveyor belt, another employee boxes the sealed bags and stacks them on a pallet.

“None of us knew how to do any of this – it’s been a huge learning curve,” Steve says.

The farm now sells 11 products under the Braggadocio label: long-grain white rice, long-grain brown rice, white basmati rice, brown basmati rice, white rice flour, brown rice flour, popcorn, popcorn cornmeal, white cornmeal, polenta and white corn grits. The couple also bought the Texas Best brand a few years back and sells brown and white long-grain and jasmine rice under that label.

Much of McKaskle’s rice flour is purchased by gluten-free bakeries all over the country; Steve says the increased availability of rice flour has been a real boon for people with celiac disease or gluten issues. It’s also commonly used to make rice noodles in East and Southeast Asian cuisines. Thanks to its fairly neutral flavor, it can be a great alternative to all-purpose wheat flour.

“Rice flour is a real hot item right now,” he says. “We’ve fried fish and chicken strips in our flour and cornmeal and it’s just wonderful. A lot of chefs are starting to use the non-gluten flours; these non-gluten bakeries are popping up everywhere.”

Kaye cautions that rice flour can’t be swapped cup-for-cup with all-purpose wheat flour: Often, you have to add tapioca or potato starch for the rice flour to behave more like traditional wheat flour, but once you get the proportions right, she says, it’s really tasty.

“What you’re seeing is what all farmers need to do, and that’s called value-added agriculture, instead of taking a commodity that’s priced on the Chicago Board of Trade that you have no influence over,” Steve says. “We process [our rice] and we’re selling it to the consumer. Then we took that same rice, brown and white, and we’re making flour, and that’s value added. Instead of growing popcorn and selling it to a wholesaler, we’re growing it, we’re processing it, we’re selling it to humans. There’s more money in it, it’s more work – but you have more control over it. It’s a lot of work.”

These value-added products help McKaskle Family Farm’s bottom line, of course, but the flavor is important, too. The McKaskles first started grinding popcorn into cornmeal after a customer north of Cape Girardeau couldn’t find organic and non-GMO cornmeal, so she ground Braggadocio popcorn into cornmeal in her home grinder. The resulting cornbread muffins were so good, she brought Steve and Kaye a batch, and they were sold.

***

When all is said and done, Steve and Kaye are building up McKaskle Family Farm for future generations. Their son-in-law is the company’s chief operations officer, and one day, they’d like their grandchildren to take the reins. Their oldest grandsons, Stephen and Coppage Ellis, 24 and 22, respectively, are working on the farm and learning the ropes.

Currently, McKaskle Family Farm provides rice to more than 60 Chipotle restaurants in Missouri, and brown rice for national meal-kit delivery service Blue Apron. You can find Braggadocio brand rice – and often the farm’s other products – at Mama Jean’s Natural Market in Springfield, Missouri; Local Harvest Grocery and Whole Foods Market in the St. Louis area; Lucky’s Market in Columbia; and through Shatto Home Delivery in the Kansas City area.

“I don’t really wanna get much bigger than what we are right now,” Steve says. “I think we got enough.”

Kaye finishes Steve’s thought. “Until the boys can grab hold of it. They have a whole lot to learn,” she says. “They all have a future here, but they need to learn the farming first, then they need to learn the money, and then they need to learn the marketing.”

“They never complain,” Steve says. “We’re hoping that what we’re trying to build here will be good for them. We hope that they really like it. That’s why we’re doing it, really.”

That doesn’t mean Steve is slowing down: McKaskle Family Farm is currently testing ready-to-eat bags of popcorn, which they hope will be yet another value-added product. They also experimented last year with a form of weed control that essentially electrocutes the weeds that grow taller than their soybeans. Since shifting gears on the farm in 2006, Steve has survived two forms of cancer that are now in remission, and he continues to constantly look forward and try to answer the question, “How can I improve my farm, crops and business?”

“He’ll never retire,” Kaye chuckles. She retired about a decade ago as a buyer for an independent bookstore in Caruthersville. Steve’s next project – other than planting, growing and harvesting, that is – is a weed-control research program in conjunction with the University of Missouri’s Bradford Research Center outside of Columbia.

“I’m known for talking too much and telling too many stories,” Steve says, sipping a cup of black coffee. “It’s real hard. The farming part is real hard; the processing part is real hard. It’s just lots of work. But if you’re passionate about organics – if you’re not passionate, I don’t think you could do it.”

Kaye nods. “Anything worth having is worth working for.”

McKaskle Family Farm,, Missouri, mckasklefamilyfarm.com

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