Earth-friendly farming

Lundberg family preaches what it’s practiced for 70 years

SUSTAINABLE SEEDLING<br>Jessica Lundberg picks a plant from the farm’s rice nursery, which she supervises and where many new varieties of rice are tested out.

Jessica Lundberg picks a plant from the farm’s rice nursery, which she supervises and where many new varieties of rice are tested out.

Photo By Andrew Boost

Hometown’s tale:
Richvale, the birthplace of Lundberg Family Farms, is the subject of a book by a local writing group. For a review, check out In The Mix.

Growing up in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl era, Albert Lundberg saw the effects of poor farming methods on his family’s cattle and corn farm. So when he made his way to California in 1937, he had the foresight to instill environmentally friendly techniques in his own farming operation.

Seventy years later, sustainability is the cornerstone of Lundberg Family Farms. The 5,000-acre ranch situated in Richvale, a farming community about 30 miles south of Chico, is now run by subsequent generations who carry on Albert’s legacy with eco-conscious farming practices.

“He saw what happened when the land was over-farmed and over-ranched,” said Jessica Lundberg, Albert’s great-granddaughter and marketing director for the company. “He challenged his boys to leave the land better than they found it.”

The land, mostly clay soil, is ideal for rice farming, said Jessica, who detailed the history of the farm. When her great-grandfather first came to California, he was offered a free train ticket to the Richvale area, a method of enticing emigrants to move there. A farmer by trade, Albert decided to make a go at rice farming and move his family to the small Northern California town.

Almost immediately, he began implementing what are now considered sustainable farming techniques. While many other farmers in the area were burning the straw stubble left in the fields after harvest, Albert was concerned about what this did to the soil. He knew he could find a more environmentally sound way to dispose of the by-product, Jessica said. Years later, what emerged was an innovation straight from the minds of Albert and his four sons who ran the farm alongside him. Eldon, Wendell, Harlan, Homer and Albert created what Jessica refers to as a “cage roller.”

Rather than burn the straw, the men used the roller to mash it into the soil of the rice fields. While it took them a few tries to design the perfect implement, the sons eventually created the roller that the farm still uses today.

Jessica said that by putting the straw back into the earth, the Lundbergs are able to naturally fortify the soil. The straw also attracts birds that feed on its remnants and provide additional fertilizer for the fields.

About 40 years ago, a New York City business approached the Lundbergs about growing their rice without chemicals. Chico-San, which moved to Chico in the mid 1960s, wanted to sell rice cakes to its customers using only organic rice.

“We already had a reputation of being out of the ordinary,” Jessica said.

Chico-San’s request became the beginning of Lundbergs’ transition to organic agriculture.

During a time of heavy chemical use in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Lundbergs converted several of their fields from traditional to organic. Jessica said the family found consumers loved the rice, and they loved taking care of the environment.

KEEP ON ROLLIN’ ON<br>The Lundbergs use a cage roller as an alternative to burning the rice straw left over from harvest. The roller grinds the straw into the field, fortifying the soil with nutrients for the next year’s crop.

Photo By Andrew Boost

Today, 70 percent of the crops from the Lundberg ranch, plus the yields from an additional 10,000 acres where 40 contracted farmers grow for the company, are organic. With 14 varieties of rice, and a projected production of 55 million pounds this year, Lundberg Family Farms is the No. 1 organic rice grower in the country.

To grow organically, the family has come up with creative solutions to obstacles such as weeds. Jessica said that while rice can sustain itself without water for a period of time, weeds cannot. And since rice grows in water, the Lundbergs found that by removing water from the fields, they could kill the unwanted plants and then re-flood the rice crop.

“We just have methods and tools that we use from year to year. We see what works and what doesn’t,” Jessica said. “Farmers are innovators at heart.”

The family’s efforts to farm in a more sustainable manner do not stop at avoiding chemical use. The farm has implemented several other practices, such as harnessing solar power to generate electricity.

In 2000, Lundberg Family Farms installed a 200-kilowatt system near its rice dryer and a 185-kilowatt system on its refrigerator warehouse. The amount of energy supplied by both systems is expected to offset their combined $1.5 million cost in about eight years, Jessica said.

Lundberg Farms’ neighbors, the Butte County Rice Growers Association, also implemented a 200-kilowatt solar system in 2000 to power its rice dryer. Carl Hoff, the association’s president, said he is very pleased and proud of the businesses’ shared commitment to better the environment.

“The Lundbergs do an incredible job with their sustainable farming practices,” Hoff said. “They’re great neighbors to have.”

Viewed from atop a silo where rice is stored, the family farm stretches in beautiful shades of green this time of year. With some rice varieties only a few weeks away from harvest, the tall green plants set an idyllic scene. A few hundred yards in the distance sits the farm’s mill processing plant. Jessica said a windmill generates about 80 percent of the plant’s needed power. The other 20 percent comes from the electrical solar panels.

While 30 percent of Lundberg’s rice crop is non-organic, Jessica said that all the rice is treated as though it is grown organically. No post-harvest chemicals are used in the production of products.

“We take a very holistic approach,” said Jessica, “and don’t use any chemicals even when it comes to cleaning our equipment and buildings.”

To fight pests within the buildings, the facilities are heated rather than treated, Jessica said. After taking all the equipment and products out of a room, farm workers bring in propane heaters to bring the temperature up to 130 degrees. The warm air kills off all stages of insects, and employees can go back to work quicker, because they don’t have to wait for the chemicals to dissipate.

The materials that Lundberg Family Farms uses to package their products are recyclable. Since the products are packaged on-site, the Lundbergs can ensure that their rice and rice products are presented in an all-around sustainable manner.

Still, Jessica says, just as the times change and innovations in sustainable practices are realized, the Lundbergs are continually working to improve upon their existing sustainability efforts.

“We’re constantly challenging ourselves in all areas of sustainability,” she said. “We’re always looking for new ideas and better ways to do things.”