Rachel Moore Published

Heirloom Rice Thrives In Western North Carolina With Help From Hmong Farmers

A person's hand is shown holding rice stalks on a sunny day.
Tou Lee holds sweet sticky rice stalks in his rice field in Morganton, North Carolina.
Rachel Moore/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the Feb. 4, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

When you think of rice, you might not think of Western North Carolina. However, Hmong farmers have been growing rice in the North Carolina mountains for nearly five decades. 

Tou and Chue Lee are two of these farmers. They are the owners of Lee’s One Fortune Farm in Morganton, North Carolina. Named for the family legacy Tou and Chue hope to inspire, Lee’s One Fortune Farm aims to make fresh rice, along with Asian fruits and vegetables, accessible to local people. 

The Lees grow multiple varieties of rice — sweet sticky, red and purple. They are also working with family members to develop a black shell variety they hope to sell within the next year. Fresh rice is unlike anything that you can find in a conventional supermarket. The sweet sticky rice is fragrant and somewhat chewy, while the red rice has a flavor similar to chestnuts. The purple rice is also nutty and has a deep inky purple color. The sweet sticky rice is one of the Lees’ most popular varieties. 

“The sweet sticky rice has a very nice, kind of a honey, sugar cane aroma — a subtle freshness that is hard to explain,” Tou said.

A rice field in North Carolina is shown. In front of it is a sign that reads, "Sweet Sticky Rice Field."
The sweet sticky rice field at Lee’s One Fortune Farm in Morganton, North Carolina.

Credit: Rachel Moore/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

He likens the rice to a fresh loaf of bread. It may be hard to describe, but once you experience it, you will know what to look for. 

Origin Story 

While each of the rice varieties that the Lees grow is distinct, the sweet sticky rice has a legendary beginning in North Carolina. It started with a handful of seeds, passed down through a network of Hmong families. 

“Someone visited Laos back in the 1980s after they came to the United States,” Tou said. “They were able to visit their families and acquire a few — I mean, not even ounces — worth of seed. I would say no more than maybe 40 to 50 seeds.”

The family planted the seeds in California. Tou said the rice grew, but it did not grow well because it was not suited for the California climate and terrain. So, the growers in California sent some rice seeds to friends in North Carolina — this is how Tou’s family acquired some. They planted the seeds just to see what would happen. 

“Lo and behold, the thing germinated and took off and it almost grew as tall as a full grown adult,” Tou said. 

The Lees have been growing the sweet sticky rice ever since. Tou said it has completely adapted to Western North Carolina.

“It started off as an heirloom from Laos, but as many years as it’s been here in Western North Carolina, it might as well be considered an heirloom in the Western North Carolina area,” said Tou. 

Two pictures side-by-side of rice. One is shown toasted and the other is sweet and sticky.
Before and after: sweet sticky rice after it has been harvested and toasted (left), and sweet sticky rice after the hulling process (right).

Credit: Rachel Moore/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Blending Old And New Techniques 

It may be considered an heirloom, but growing rice is still a lot of work. The Lees had to establish their rice field in a low-lying area about a mile from the rest of their farm. It does not grow in a conventional paddy, but the Lees do have to flood the field each year to ensure the rice has enough water, and to provide pest control. 

A close up photo of a field of rice.
Each year, Tou and Chue Lee flood their rice fields with 8–10 inches of water for pest control.

Credit: Rachel Moore/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Lees find ways to incorporate traditional Hmong practices throughout the growing season. Take seed saving. Each seed has to be hand selected. It is a time-consuming process.

“When the rice starts to mature, we actually go in there with buckets or bags and we walk around and hand select the most plump, the most well-defined rice that’s on the stalk, and we hand harvest those just for seed,” Tou said. 

The Lees do implement more modern techniques during the harvesting process — by using a combine harvester, for example — but their hulling process looks similar to what it did when they were growing up in Laos. 

Two people are shown standing over a small plastic pool size of harvested rice.
Tou Lee and his aunt hull sweet sticky rice that has been harvested. First, the rice is boiled in a pot of water and debris from the field is skimmed off.

Credit: Rachel Moore/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On a chilly October afternoon, Tou and Chue, along with Tou’s aunt, Pa Vang Lee, hull the rice. Hulling removes the outer layer of the rice, making it edible. First, Pa Vang scoops rice into a pot of boiling water. This allows the rice to sink and all the debris to float to the top so she can skim it off. 

Then, Chue toasts the rice in a large wok over a gas flame. Toasting the rice starts the drying process and helps develop the flavor. The rice finishes drying on large tarps. When it dries, Tou runs it through the huller and it is ready to cook.

A woman stands over a wok of rice that is being toasted.
Chue Lee toasts rice in a wok to begin drying it before it can be hulled.

Credit: Rachel Moore/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A Lasting Legacy 

Growing rice may have its challenges, but the Lees believe it is important to keep doing. 

When the Lees decided to settle down in Western North Carolina, Tou knew he didn’t want their culture to be hidden away in the background. The Lees bring their culture to the forefront by selling at farmers markets and introducing customers to Hmong foodways. 

“The rice is something that brings our families back to remembering what our culture was in the old country and how we want to continue our culture here,” Tou said. 

The rice is also an important piece of the Hmong new year, a huge annual celebration that takes place around Thanksgiving. In North Carolina, members of the Hmong community travel up to hundreds of miles to celebrate the holiday. Traditionally, this is when farmers would share their young, green rice with others. 

“When the family gathers, you’ve got this fresh, new rice. You cook that and that is a means of making something that the whole family can enjoy together,” Tou said.

Now, the Lees are proud to share their rice with people outside of the Hmong community. 

Rice is one of the Lees’ most popular items when they offer it at farmers markets. People line up long before the market opens to stock up. It was not always this easy for the Lees though. Tou said when he and Chue started selling at farmers markets a little over a decade ago, not many people knew what they were offering. 

“I knew it was gonna be tough to start out with because people didn’t know what you have, so it’s a tough sell. We knew it would take a long time to develop it, and it did,” Tou said. 

So, the Lees found their own ways to adapt. They share recipes and ideas with customers. Recipes like young, sticky green rice with succulent Hmong sausage, stuffed bitter melon or charcoal-roasted Japanese sweet potatoes, make Hmong cuisine accessible.  

A photo is shown of a Styrofoam to-go plate. Inside is rice, meat, and a vegetable.
Tou and Chue Lee serve a meal of young, fresh sticky rice, Hmong sausage, hot sauce and an eggplant dip to guests of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project Farm Tour at Lee’s One Fortune Farm in September 2023.

Credit: Rachel Moore/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Now, people beyond the Hmong community know how special Lee’s One Fortune Farm is. They respect the rice and they respect the produce, coming back year after year to stock up. Tou and Chue were able to help make rice thrive in North Carolina, and the community has shown they are willing to support it. 

“The rice just seems to be in its home,” Tou said.


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.