Rice university

A short primer on one of California’s top cash crops

Rice is one of the most important food staples on the planet, providing 20 percent of the calories consumed by humans.

Rice is one of the most important food staples on the planet, providing 20 percent of the calories consumed by humans.

Each spring, thousands of tons of California rice falls from the sky. It comes from the bellies of private planes, hired by farmers to drop germinated rice grains across half a million acres of flooded fields between Chico and Sacramento.

Thusly planted at about 130 pounds per acre, the seeds explode under the summer sun into an October crop yield of up to 4 tons per acre. That’s the average for conventionally farmed fields.

Organic farms usually produce less, from 1 to 3 tons per acre. Most is refined into white rice, while brown, more nourishing but far less popular, constitutes only 3 percent of the crop.

Ed Sills grows a substantial chunk of that portion. He has farmed almost 1,000 acres of organic rice near Pleasant Grove for nearly 30 years. Rice is his primary source of income, though as an organic farmer he must rotate his fields on a four-year cycle, which enhances soil health. In nonrice years, Sills grows wheat, beans and corn. Such crops carry less value than rice and so round down his profits—one of several reasons that organic rice may often cost nearly twice the price of conventionally grown rice. Lower yields are another factor.

Sills grows three varieties of rice—short grain, long grain and aromatic Indian, or California basmati. He sells all of it entirely unprocessed to Lundberg Family Farms, a wholesale distributor of mostly brown rice.

Elsewhere around the state, roughly a dozen mills refine the state’s rice harvest into pearls of starch about as white and nourishing as snow. It takes about one hour and several stages of processing; first, the milling machinery knocks the husk from each grain. Further stages of grinding and polishing renders the final product, which is dried before packaging.

In spite of the extra post-processing required to produce white rice, brown is usually substantially more expensive for several reasons.

“It’s partly because the infrastructure for making white rice has been established,” says Michael Bosworth, a 28-year-old rice farmer in Olivehurst who grows 250 acres of organic rice, which he sends to a mill in Colusa for refining. “Brown rice also has less demand and less supply, and its shelf life is shorter.”

Bosworth, who operates as Rue & Forsman Ranch, delivers his organic rice to about 15 local buyers, including the kitchens at UC Davis and Sacramento State, several locations of Nugget Markets, and Kru and The Kitchen restaurants in Sacramento. Consumer demand for organic rice has grown in the past decade, though Sills has farmed without synthetic soil additives or pesticides since day one.

“It was actually cheaper and easier,” he says. “With conventional farming, you need to buy chemicals and fertilizers.”

But even the conventional rice growers of California, says Sills, have been leaders in sustainable farming efforts. For one thing, he says that rice fields don’t necessarily use the water volume often associated with the grain’s production. The flooded fields we see north of Sacramento are often just inches deep, and annual application runs from 4 to 6 acre feet of water. Almonds, to give a sense of scale, demand about 4 acre feet per year. Sills also points out that he and other organic rice farmers plant very low-water-use crops three of every four years on a given field. Anyway, he says, flooded rice paddies provide expansive waterfowl habitat.

Ninety-five percent of California’s rice is grown in the Sacramento Valley by roughly 2,500 farmers. Though 40 varieties occur statewide, one type called japonica makes up 98 percent of California’s production. The state produces 1.8 million tons of rice each year (Arkansas grows almost twice that), and though people like saying that “farmers feed America,” in fact, half of California’s rice crop goes to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, the Middle East and the South Pacific. Meanwhile, imported Chinese rice is abundantly available. Skip it and buy local—and if you can figure out that bizarre quirk of global economics, call me. I’ll be at home boiling brown rice.