The rice age
How Michael Bosworth grew one of the Sacramento Valley’s most abundant crops from lowly side dish into a farm-to-fork star
Rue & Forsman Ranch sits covered in water. The big rice harvest ended last month, and now its more than 1,000 acres of rice fields are enjoying a good soak. Shorebirds stud the surface while rice straw slowly decomposes, and Michael Bosworth drives his truck around with dog in tow.
With Sacramento’s focus on the farm-to-fork movement, it’s logical to assume local restaurants purchase their rice from area farms such as Rue & Forsman, located just south of Marysville. After all, Sacramento is flanked by rice fields. The region holds 550,000 acres of the grain alone.
That’s not the case, though. In the rice industry, kernels are loaded by the 50,000-pound truckload and driven from different farms to the same mill. The resultant bag that consumers buy comprises a hodgepodge of California rice, and it goes all over the world—maybe a grocer in Sacramento, maybe a restaurant in South Korea.
In 2006, Bosworth had an idea: he could control every process of his farm’s organic rice and sell it directly to local businesses. He could give his rice an identity. He could mill the rice himself, ensure that it’s refrigerated in a special facility until right before it’s sold, and design its packaging specifically for chefs.
He brought a bag to a sushi restaurant in Yuba City for a test run.
“It was a special moment to taste your own rice for the first time,” Bosworth says, smiling. “I thought it tasted good. And the chef said it was quality rice, that it stuck together well.”
The student-run Coffee House at UC Davis became Bosworth’s first client—he had recently finished his masters there in agricultural economics. Soon he added the dining halls at UC Davis, the Farmer’s Kitchen Cafe in downtown Davis, and then he expanded into Sacramento. Two of the first chefs to sign on were Billy Ngo at Kru and Randall Selland at The Kitchen—their restaurants are widely recognized as some of the city’s finest.
Ngo didn’t even want to try Bosworth’s rice at first—it’s a bit more expensive, and restaurant profit margins are notoriously slim. But then he met Bosworth, toured Rue & Forsman and learned all about rice farming. After, he wanted to support it, to be part of it.
“I just think it’s so cool. You can think of it kind of like wine—people make wine with grapes grown from different vineyards,” Ngo says. “Rice brands buy their rice from different farms and we have no idea where it’s from. This, we actually know where it’s coming from.”On the farm
Bosworth is the latest in a long line of family farming. He’s originally from the Shasta area, where his family had been cattle farmers since the 1870s. Then his mom got remarried and they moved to Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst. He spent summers working on the farm and eventually studied crop science at UC Davis—for four years, he held down the teaching assistant gig for the school’s infamous tractor driving course.
The ranch got its start in 1946, all irrigated pastures and beef cattle. Bosworth’s stepfather Michael Rue wanted to diversify—he added rice fields in 1974 and organic rice fields in 1997.
The region’s clay-heavy soil isn’t so good for orchards or anything requiring room for roots to grow. But rice? Rice works great.
“The clay layer is nearly impermeable,” Bosworth says. “It’s like a big bathtub.”
There’s never a time for Bosworth to fully rest or take a vacation, but he is approaching his slowest season of equipment repair and irrigation.
In March, the rice cycle will start over again. He’ll drain the fields and work the ground. Fancy GPS-precision technology is used to ensure a flat field. Then they get fertilizer—or poultry manure for the organic fields—and deep grooves for seeds to easily fall into. The fields are flooded again, and by the end of April, planes fly over dropping seeds at 100 miles per hour.
Those seedlings grow, eventually shooting up to become 3-feet-tall stalks of kernels. Then it’s time to harvest—Bosworth reported 100-hour workweeks this past October—and dry, mill, package and refrigerate the rice until it’s sold.
According to the California Rice Commission, 97 percent of California’s rice is grown in the Sacramento Valley. California supplies virtually all of the country’s sushi rice. And it’s a major exporter to countries that devour rice faster than they can grow it.
That means Bosworth has a whole world to think about when it comes to his conventional rice.
“There’s a lot outside California impacting our bottom line every day,” he says, pointing to California’s main international competitors, Australia and Egypt.
Like California, Australia has been suffering a drought and anticipates a low yield next year. Amid turmoil in the Middle East, Egypt placed a ban on exporting rice for about a year. These factors drive up demand—and the price— of California’s rice, which is experiencing its own shortfall. According to the California Rice Commission, only 420,000 acres of rice— a 25-percent drop—were planted this year.
But Bosworth controls every step of his own, much smaller organic rice production—including the pricing—which provides some welcomed stability. Locally, he sells two-pound bags for $4.95 online at www.nextgenfoods.com, as well as at the Midtown shop Preservation & Co. and the Davis Food Co-op. But most of his bags go directly to other small businesses.
“You want to have your two-pound bag of rice in every store in America, but it’s tough. It’s almost better to build a direct relationship with your buyer,” he says. “I’m glad I found a niche with the local restaurants. … I think when chefs get to know you and come to the farm, there’s a lot of loyalty.”In the kitchen
Cook a batch of Bosworth’s organic Calrose—a regional medium-grain variety of rice—alongside a generic brand of medium-grain rice, and it’s shockingly easy to see the difference. Bosworth’s rice kernels look, understandably, more uniform. But the rice also wears a sheen and carries a noticeable fragrance. It’s fluffier, stickier. It’s just better.
Jason Azevedo, chef at Mighty Tavern in Fair Oaks, started purchasing from Bosworth a couple of months ago. Azevedo says that as soon as he tried Bosworth’s rice, he knew he had to start carrying it.
“You tend to think of rice as a commodity,” he says. “His rice definitely isn’t just a placeholder on a plate. It adds something special.”
Azevedo uses it for side dishes and a play on creamed spinach, thickened by a rice and onion paste. And his risotto doesn’t use the traditional Arborio rice—it’s made with Bosworth’s Calrose.
Ngo had long used Bosworth’s Calrose at Kru. But a couple years ago, Ngo decided he really wanted short-grain sushi rice instead. Most Japanese restaurants in the U.S. use medium-grain rice, Ngo admits, but the stickiness that comes with short-grain rice is unparalleled.
So Bosworth planted new grain, which Ngo has been serving at Kru since May. Do diners notice the difference?
“I hope so,” Ngo says, laughing. “I tell [diners] about the rice, how this farm grows it, mills it and delivers it—that they’re growing this sushi rice just for us. It’s huge.”
All of Bosworth’s rice is graded No. 1—the highest possible—by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means it looks creamy and white—no gray tones detectable—and there aren’t broken, heat-damaged or chalky kernels.
The grade translates on the plate, too. Ngo points out the minimal broken kernels and says it boasts better flavor and mouthfeel. Azevedo goes back to maintaining the farm-to-fork ethos.
“Really, what are you spending your money on? Cheap, Minute-Maid style rice, or a quality product from a quality farmer delivered right to your doorstep?”