Learning from the land
Butte County farmer engages, educates via web channel
For farmer Matthew Sligar, the landscape of a Northern California rice field is stunning: cloud-covered buttes in the background, monstrous machines turning the earth and frequent appearances from critters like barn owls, crawdads, snakes and jackrabbits.
But a person can feel quite isolated working for hours on end in the middle of open acreage. That’s why he founded Rice Farming TV, to share what life in agriculture is like.
Sligar has proven himself to be a master storyteller: Rice Farming TV has captured the attention of nearly 21,000 subscribers on its YouTube channel, with the most popular video drawing more than 425,000 views.
The venture has been thrilling. “I have fans who are viewing from all around the world who are fellow rice farmers … and we’re exchanging rice farming stories,” Sligar told the CN&R, “and also just [the] general public, who are interested in where rice comes from.”
Since 2016, Sligar has filmed nearly 100 episodes for Rice Farming TV, mostly in southwest Butte County. He often dreams up creative and comedic ways to share his story.
In one video, he recites a love poem to his shovel while trudging through mud in knee-high boots, readying the fields for the 2019 crop. In another, he caresses the rice plants in a field dotted with both real and digitally created Rice Krispies treats.
“I’m just happy to be carrying on the family legacy and tradition of snapping, crackling and popping out these delicious treats,” he deadpans.
In addition to showcasing his sense of humor to entertain people, Sligar also earnestly and thoughtfully speaks about the hard work that goes into rice farming in the interest of teaching others about the industry. Rice is one of the state’s largest crops, grown on about 550,000 acres—97 percent of which are within the Sacramento Valley—and contributing $5 billion to the state’s economy each year, according to the California Rice Commission. The state grows virtually all of the United States’ sushi rice.
One video follows Sligar on a “typical 14-hour workday” during the planting season. Another offers a step-by-step explanation of how rice is planted in Butte County. In others, he takes viewers on virtual tractor rides and demonstrates important tools, like his autonomous agriculture drone. Sligar doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, either, such as weed and pest control management and water usage.
He frequently features guests on his show, most notably other Northern California rice farmers, such as Willows-based organic grower Tom Knowles. Another was Jim Morris, California Rice Commission communications manager, who identified his favorite species of birds that can be spotted around California’s rice fields, which provide habitat for more than 230 wildlife species.
Sligar’s growing audience is a reflection of the quality of Rice Farming TV, Morris told the CN&R via phone—the episodes are fun, entertaining and teach people a lot about agriculture along the way.
“You don’t have to be an expert on rice farming to really appreciate all he’s doing,” Morris said. “Matthew has been a huge help in telling why rice matters, and that includes from your sushi roll to being a vital part of our environment.”
Sligar said he has received tremendous support for his channel. He has lobbied for the rice industry in Washington, D.C., and participates in a rice leadership development program that allows him to travel, meet and befriend fellow farmers, and “get exposed to the larger picture of the rice industry.”
Though Sligar is a third-generation rice farmer, he didn’t always intend to pick up the family trade. One of his least favorite duties as a teen was shoveling the rice fields. He left the North State after high school, studying modern American literature at UC Santa Cruz and then resettling abroad in Prague, where he ran a tourism company for six years.
He didn’t stay away from the farm for too long, however. In 2012, he settled in Gridley with his wife, Clara, to raise a family. Now, he harvests 1,600 acres of Calrose medium-grain rice in west Biggs and Richvale with his father, George.
He’s been able to reflect on the benefits of the job: financial security, working outdoors and providing a healthy lifestyle for his family—and, with Rice Farming TV, the social connectivity and educational opportunities.
Sligar’s 3-year-old daughter, Elena, isn’t quite old enough to spend much time in the fields, but she knows that when her dad goes off to work, he says hello to the frogs just for her.
His childhood memories there weren’t all laborious (or shovel-related). Sligar recalled “playing with the dog, looking in the junk pile and making swords out of scraps … and climbing on equipment like it was a jungle gym.”
He’s looking forward to helping Elena create her own memories of farming as she grows up, and imparting the work ethic his father instilled within him.
“I valued the lifestyle that farming gave me as a kid, so I wanted to give that [to the next generation] as I was planning a family,” he said. “It’s important to do the best you can in every single task throughout the entire crop year, because all of that combined is going to help the end product, that being the best yield you can get.”