A billionaire is trying to restore rice fields worked by slaves. It hasn’t been easy.

Dillon Epp, who manages the restoration of the rice fields at the Orton Plantation.
Dillon Epp, who manages the restoration of the rice fields at the Orton Plantation. Courtesy of Anne Liles

As a rice farm, Orton Plantation would have to be considered a failure so far.

Four years ago, workers planted about 200 acres of rice on these fields along the Cape Fear River, the first time someone has tried to grow rice here since 1931. The plants came up, says Dillon Epp, who manages the property, but then everything went wrong: Insects, cutworms and soil that was too salty and acidic all helped stunt or kill the plants.

“It was horrible. We probably made a 10 percent yield,” Epp said. “We had to learn from that.”

Since then, Epp has overseen an effort to improve the soil, reduce the threat of disease and find strains of rice that will thrive here. This year, he planted just 40 acres on the most promising soil.

“Producing a commercial crop is the least of our worries,” he said. “We’re focused on restoring the fields.”

For Orton Plantation’s owner, billionaire hedge-fund manager Louis Moore Bacon, a big harvest isn’t the point of his effort to grow rice in the antebellum fields around his ancestral home in Brunswick County, about 15 miles down river from Wilmington.

I am awed and inspired by the resilience that helped create these fields, and by saving them, I have an opportunity to commemorate the lives of those who were critical to the development of this land. ... We must ensure these sacrifices are not forgotten.

Louis Moore Bacon, owner Orton Plantation

Restoring the fields, like restoring the 280-year-old home and the longleaf pine forests at Orton, is part of Bacon’s quixotic effort to preserve a 17th century landscape and, he says, honor the African slaves who built it and made it economically viable.

Bacon, a Raleigh native, is a direct descendent on his mother’s side of “King” Roger Moore, the man who established the plantation in 1725 and developed the fields Bacon now hopes to restore.

“Restoring the historic rice fields recognizes centuries-old rice farming practices of enslaved Africans,” he wrote by email. “I am awed and inspired by the resilience that helped create these fields, and by saving them, I have an opportunity to commemorate the lives of those who were critical to the development of this land, rather than have their prodigious work swept under by the Cape Fear River.

“We must ensure these sacrifices are not forgotten and are properly recognized by the restored Orton Plantation.”

Bacon bought Orton and 8,500 surrounding acres in 2010 for a reported $45 million. His most visible restoration work, along N.C. 133 between Leland and Southport, is the use of selective clearing and fire to restore the longleaf pine forests, which once dominated North Carolina’s coastal plain. Fire is necessary to maintain longleaf pine forests, which resemble a grassy savannah randomly dotted with tall pines and support several rare plants and animals, including the red-cockaded woodpecker.

The Moore family established its rice fields in the marshes that surrounded the high-ground near the river where Roger Moore built his house. Slaves built dikes to keep out the salty river water and turned the wetlands into fields that could be drained to plant rice in spring and then carefully flooded with fresh water from man-made Orton Lake as the rice grew during the summer and into fall.

Four years ago, workers planted 200 acres of rice at Orton Plantation. The plants came up, but salty and acidic soil and insects helped stunt or kill the plants. This year, only 40 acres was planted in rice as workers try to restore the fields. anne liles Courtesy of Anne Liles

The water moved by gravity through narrow canals controlled with a system of wooden gates. The system was designed by two brothers from South Carolina and built by hand by their slaves.

“They were genius in how they moved water in and out,” Epp said. “They understood that the critical part of growing rice was getting water in and out of the fields.”

Epp uses the same system to bring water into the field, flooding the established rice so that just a few inches of the plants remain above water. But he makes one concession to modernity at harvest time: He uses mechanical pumps to drain the water away, so the fields can more quickly get dry enough to support a John Deere tractor, something earlier planters didn’t need to worry about.

One of the big challenges is ridding the soil of salt. Not only does it come in when the Cape Fear River breaches or overwashes the dikes, as it did during Hurricane Matthew last fall, but salt also comes up from the groundwater. In one 30-acre field that was flooded by the storm, Epp is growing barley that tolerates salt and draws it out of the soil into the plants’ flowers.

“Removing that will actually take the salt with it,” he said, holding a flower in his hand.

Epp thinks it will take six plantings of barley over three years before he can see about growing something else. The barley, meanwhile, will be tested to see if can be fed to horses.

Bacon won’t say how much he’s spending on restoring Orton, and he’s not worried about making anything from his investment.

“Orton is a non-commercial operation,” he wrote. “So if we do farm a crop of any significance in the next several years, we will make it available in a way that reflects our broader goals at Orton.”

Whether anyone ever serves Orton Plantation rice isn’t as important as what Bacon, Epp and others learn from their efforts, says Glenn Roberts, president of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the growing of heirloom rice in the region.

Roberts helped produce a report on the history of rice at Orton and notes that its real value during its heyday was as a source of seeds for other growers in the Carolinas. In the future, he expects Orton may be a resource for other growers not in how much it grows but in what they’ve learned about growing it.

“It’s the information they amass that will be the most valuable,” he said.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling