Jose Maria Guidobono

Nature’s thirstiest grain finds health and beauty in the waters of Entre Ríos.

Stretching north from Buenos Aires, Argentina’s Entre Ríos province, whose name literally means “between the rivers,” is an ideal place for water-intensive rice growing. The powerful Paraná River courses along its western and southern border, as the tributary Guayquiraró River winds through the north. To the east the Uruguay River, fed by its tributary the Mocoretá, rushes to meet the Paraná in the vast Río de la Plata estuary.

And yet, in this land between the rivers, water is also a gift of the earth and sky. Clouds heavy with cooling rain float across the hot blue firmament. Deep within the ground, ancient aquifers stream fountains of spring water onto the surface. Some of this storied natural mineral water is collected, bottled and sold at a premium in local stores. And some of it is destined for the pure organic rice fields of farmer Jose Maria Guidobono.

Like his father before him, Jose has cultivated generations of rice on this rich, spring-washed land. “One of the special things about our rice is the quality of water the plants receive,” he is quick to tell a visitor. “The water is drawn from the earth, a supply that is replenished by seasonal rains. It renews itself constantly — the land and the aquifer are never parched.”

Capturing the crystal treasure welling up from below requires skill in engineering, and sometimes a knack for improvisation. “To irrigate the crop we first prepare a dam,” Jose says. “Once we seed the rice, we release the water to flood the field. We do this in October, and by January or February the rice is ready to be harvested.

“The way my father explained it to me as a child, rice needs cold feet and a warm head. Water keeps the roots cool, and the sun lifts the plants to the sky. That is why we seed in the hot summer months.”

Lessons young Jose learned from his father are a prized inheritance, a pool of knowledge as clear, rare and revitalizing as the spring water itself. “My passion for rice started early,” he recalls. “When I was just 6 years old I began helping my father grow rice in the fields. It was very hard work, using only our strength and our hands. After harvest, we would fill up bags of rice and transport them on horses.

“Later we moved to the city so my brothers and I could go to the school there. After graduating from the university, I started my career as an electrical and mechanical engineer. But then, my parents suddenly passed away, and my priority became caring for my three younger brothers. I returned home and also returned to the passion that began there, the passion to grow rice. This became my new life, and I have devoted the years to learning the best ways to grow abundant harvests of rice in a healthy organic way.”

With his young brothers grown into successful adults, Jose was soon blessed with a new family responsibility: a son the happy parents named Andres. “I used to take Andres with me in the fields to drive on the tractors and combines, to see the rice,” Jose says. “After high school Andres received an internship in New Zealand for a year; and while he was there took the opportunity to look at rice fields in that part of the world — Thailand, Cambodia and other Asian countries — and saw how they are farming there.

“He was infected by the same bug, the same passion to grow rice. When he came back he began studying agricultural systems at the university. One day we were sitting together and Andres turned to ask, ‘When can I start farming?’ I laughed and said, ‘Now you are throwing me out?’”

It was a proud and wistful moment. “The sad part is that life is telling you that you need to make space for the younger generation,” Jose reflects. “On the other hand it’s a very joyful milestone, knowing that your son will someday take over and continue what you started with your passion.”

Father and son now spend their days preparing for that future. As Andres learns from his father, he is also working part-time as a fireman. Someday soon, Andres will exchange the fire truck for a tractor he will navigate through his land, plucking ripe grains from tides of cool spring water.

“I grew to love rice watching my father in the field,” Jose says, as family memories replay warmly in his mind. “I returned to my passion for rice to help my brothers. And now I do my best every day to grow the kind of rice, organic and pure, that I have always been proud to feed to my son. The same rice that my son is now so proud to grow.”

— Charlie Dodge