Farmers harbor high hopes for rice harvest

Issue Date: September 25, 2013
By Ching Lee
Sutter County farmer Steve Butler stands in a field of rice awaiting harvest. Except for a weekend rainstorm that caused some plant lodging, farmers say they have had few serious problems as harvest goes full swing in the Sacramento Valley.
Photo/Ching Lee
Rice farmer Steve Butler stands next to a trailer as harvested rice from one of his fields is being loaded.
Photo/Ching Lee
Harvest, such as in this Sutter County field, was well underway last week.
Photo/Ching Lee

Rice harvest is well underway in the Sacramento Valley, and many growers agree it has been largely smooth sailing, thanks to an earlier planting schedule this spring that has now allowed for a less-compressed harvest.

"Weather permitting, the rest of rice harvest should go pretty well," said Sutter County rice grower Steve Butler, who started harvest last week.

A rainstorm last weekend did create some lodging, which will make it harder to harvest, he said, while heavy winds also caused rice shattering in some ripe fields, with yield losses expected. But Butler said he was back in the field on Monday and said he expected to be in full swing after that.

Josh Sheppard, who harvested about 10 percent of his crop in Butte County as of last week, said he anticipates finishing by mid-October, about two weeks ahead of last year's schedule.

"You wouldn't think two weeks is that much of a time frame, but it can be an eternity in farming and it can really make a difference," he said.

Despite an early hot spell this summer, which could hurt the crop during pollination, weather for much of the growing season was generally cooperative, resulting in good yield and quality, Butler said.

Colusa County farmer Brian Barrett said the mild summer "makes for a more-constant growing season" and puts less stress on the plant and rice kernels, which in turn improves milling quality. He noted he spoke with several mills that had received some of the season's first-harvested crop and they indicated the milling quality of the rice has been "really good—better than they've seen in the past."

But Sheppard said he's a bit disappointed with the yield from fields he's harvested so far, even though he described it as "average" and meeting his "basic expectations." He said he was hoping production would be better, considering the good planting and growing conditions this year.

The state's 2013 rice crop is forecast to be 46.1 million hundredweight, up 2 percent from last year, according to this month's crop production report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.Yield is forecast at 8,300 pounds per acre, up 2 percent from 2012. The USDA forecast for planted acreage is 561,000, while harvested acreage is forecast at 556,000, relatively unchanged from last year.

Chris Greer, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Yuba, Sutter, Colusa, Sacramento, Placer and Nevada counties, said he had some concerns two months ago that yields might be down because farmers planted early and then saw the long stretch of heat in early July.

"I wasn't sure what was going to happen with that, since it was earlier in the season," he said. "But it sounds like the early yields that are coming in are pretty good, so I'm cautiously optimistic at the moment."

Some farmers experienced heavy winds during planting this spring, which grounded agricultural airplanes and caused uneven weed control in some fields. Greer said while it's still early to know how much the wind affected yields, he recently heard from a grower who had concerns early on but is now pleased with the production from a field that had some initial wind damage.

Butler said he saw increased weed pressure this year that added to his production cost, but he noted this is not a new problem for farmers, who have been struggling for years to control water grass and umbrella sedge, the main culprits in rice. With a limited number of registered herbicides available to growers in California and with some weeds developing herbicide resistance, Greer said weed management becomes more difficult every year.

Barrett said the market outlook for the current crop looks promising, as there's high demand for rice worldwide, but he also noted there's now more production coming from Australia, which also grows the medium-grain rice that dominates California's production and competes in the same export markets as the Golden State.

"A lot of our pricing is determined by international markets, since we sell abroad," said Eric Paulsen, who farms rice in Sacramento County. "How much demand there is in the export market really determines our pricing."

Butler said when countries such as Japan, Taiwan and those in the Middle East buy California rice at high values, it tends to prop up prices for medium-grain rice. But with added competition from Australia, he said, prices may come down. He noted that much of the state's rice crop is marketed in a pool and he's seen more rice going into that pool this year due to fewer cash sales and disappointing cash prices for rice.

Another issue weighing heavily on growers' minds is the lack of a new farm bill, which provides crop insurance and direct payments that could help growers should the state's current dry conditions persist and a lack of water prevent farmers from being able to plant the acreages they want.

"The fact that Congress has not acted and we're at the very end of a one-year extension has really got a lot of folks on pins and needles, because growers don't know where we stand," Butler said. (See story)

If faced with another drought next year and the prospect of no crop insurance, Butler said he might consider switching his rice acreage to less water-intensive crops such as sunflowers or safflower, to stretch the limited water supply. He said even though crop insurance is expensive, it does cover preventive planting due to water shortages, and California rice farmers, in particular, buy it for just that reason.

Growers such as Barrett and Sheppard, both of whom farm on heavy clay soil with high water tables, said they don't have the option of changing crops, as their ground is best suited for growing rice.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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