Pilots take to the air to plant rice crops

Issue Date: May 18, 2005
Christine Souza

It's rice planting time in the Sacramento Valley and the skies are abuzz with little yellow airplanes busily zooming through the air a few feet off the ground, depositing seed in precise patterns.

Aerial rice planting has been the method of choice in California for decades. With recent scientific advancements, this method of planting is more reliable and efficient than ever before. Skilled pilots using GPS (global positioning system) equipment are able to lay the seed exactly on target, then quickly turn in the air to make another pass across the submerged rice field.

Early one morning, Maxwell pilot Rick Richter filled the hopper of his canary-yellow Schweizer Ag-Cat C airplane with 23 sacks of wet rice seed and took to the sky.

A rice farmer himself, Richter has planted rice for fellow growers every year for 26 years. Although this season he expects to plant a few acres less than usual for his fellow Sacramento Valley growers, he loves his work.

"Planting the crop is one of my biggest thrills. I get satisfaction from seeing the crop grow. As I move onto the next fields, I can look back in a week or two and see the fields start to get green and see the fruits of my labor," Richter said. "It is a big sense of accomplishment, and is the job that is really most important to the grower."

For several weeks this spring, wet weather hammered many of the state's growing areas, including the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley, so rice planting was delayed. But with a few days of sunshine drying out farmland, growers have been able to work the ground in preparation for aerial rice planting.

"I talked to a few growers, and the airplanes are flying and are seeding what has been irrigated in the last couple of days," Bill Huffman, vice president of communications for the Farmers' Rice Cooperative, said last week. "About 40 to 50 percent of California's rice crop has already been planted."

The majority of the state's rice growers contract with agricultural pilots to aerially plant their rice fields. This year, rice sector experts forecast a season in which the amount of acres planted will be about average—less than last year's huge planting. California farmers report that they plan to seed about 560,000 acres of rice this year, a reduction of 6 percent from last year's total, according to California Agricultural Statistics Service. Agricultural pilots started their aerial planting routine in April, and are expected to continue sowing seed through the end of May.

"Even though it is getting late in the planting season and we have had storm after storm, I'll be planting all of my rice. I'm going to be optimistic," Richter said. "Since the price is less this year, there is talk that maybe 5 percent of the state's growers are considering not planting."

Randall "Cass" Mutters, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor, expects the low price of rice to influence growers' planting decisions.

"In terms of rice acreage, I think we will be a little off from last year because of the low price of rice," Mutters said. "A few folks told me they are having some difficulty obtaining the needed financing to plant this year. I don't know if the bankers are going to be draconian, but I know some growers are having more arduous discussions to get the financing to put the crop in this year."

Some rice growers might take advantage of the availability of new rice varieties that mature more rapidly than traditional varieties. Some farmers are still trying to decide how much rice to plant this year in response to the low market price.

Many California rice growers who missed the opportunity to take advantage of high prices for rice in 2003 planted more acres the following year. Because so many farmers planted rice in 2004, the market price they received for their crops declined.

Richter said he remains optimistic even though depressed prices are expected this year as well. Although growers are facing higher costs for diesel fuel and fertilizer, they believe they can achieve cost savings using larger and more efficient tractors pulling even larger implements than ever before. Doing so can save fuel and can contribute to a cleaner environment, he said.

Richter said that even in times of low prices and high costs, the airplane is still by far the better value in the growers' toolbox, especially in a wet year such as the current one.

"Dry fertilizer applications and aerial spraying can be done for half the price of a ground application. Saving precious time is key in a year like this. The name of the game now is to get planted as soon as possible," Richter said.

Floyd Nolta of Glenn County is credited as the first pilot to seed rice fields by airplane. The approach, which he pioneered in 1928, has helped rice growers become more efficient and save money.

Kent McKenzie of the grower-owned Rice Experiment Station in Biggs said this technology was a perfect fit for growing rice because it is water-seeded. A majority of the state's rice now is planted aerially.

"Pilots fly rice seed onto flooded fields by aircraft. Seeds fall through the water to the soil surface. They actually root there and then grow up through the water and emerge," McKenzie said. "The original reason for doing that was to control the weeds, because if you put a flood of water over the fields, it will suppress a lot of the grass weeds. That has been our traditional seeding system here in California."

The advent of GPS during the past eight years has advanced technology for both rice farmers and pilots, and has made seeding and record-keeping processes much more efficient.

"It has become very sophisticated over the last couple of years. Flying services can go back after the fields have been planted and provide a computer printout that shows the flight path of the plane over the grower's field," McKenzie said.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be reached at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.