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Shorter rice harvest nears the finish line

Issue Date: October 21, 2015
By Ching Lee
Rice farmer Tom McClellan is finishing harvest in this field in the Natomas area of south Sutter and Sacramento counties. Growers say favorable weather has allowed for a smooth harvest with good yields this year, though rice acreage is down due to water shortages.
Photo/Ching Lee
Tom McClellan harvests a rice field in the Natomas area. He said he expects to finish his harvest this week.
Photo/Ching Lee

With rice harvest in the Sacramento Valley winding down, California growers say cooperative weather throughout the season has helped to produce a robust crop in spite of the many acres they had to fallow because of water shortages.

"I don't know that this is the best year ever, but it certainly is a good year," said Tom McClellan, who grows rice in Sutter and Sacramento counties, and is finishing harvest this week. "We've had excellent yields and I'm pleased with that, since we've got a short crop. Every little bit helps."

That many growers did not plant all of their acreage means they also finished early enough to dodge any early-autumn rains that could wreck harvest and crop quality, he added. The dry spring did not hinder their planting schedule, he noted, and summer temperatures produced the right amount of heat for the crop.

But with his water allocation reduced, McClellan said he had to idle 35 percent of his land, forcing him to cut his seasonal workforce in order to keep costs in line with his production.

California farmers planted 411,000 acres of rice this year, according to the California Rice Commission. That's down from 434,000 acres in 2014, but up from the 408,000 acres the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated in the spring. The state traditionally grows about 550,000 acres, according to the commission.

At El Centro Storage, a rice-drying, storage and seed operation in Pleasant Grove, President Peter Panton said the biggest impact from the drought has been on his seed sales, which have dropped 50 percent in the last two years. He blamed the drought for about three-fourths of that loss, with conversion of rice ground to other crops also contributing.

Panton noted that while the rice-drying part of his business has not suffered as badly, because much of the rice he dries comes from ranches with senior water rights, he knows of many other rice dryers that are struggling because growers had their water allotments cut or they chose to sell their water.

Warm weather early in the season helped to grow bigger, more robust plants that produce more rice, said Luis Espino, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor. But hotter temperatures and the lack of winter rainfall also may have aided outbreaks of armyworms in some fields this year, particularly in Butte and Glenn counties, he said.

Armyworms are common in rice fields, though often in small numbers, usually appearing in July, Espino said. This year they came in June, with some growers reporting severe infestations. The worms eat the leaves, but usually the plant compensates for the injury by growing new ones. This year, he saw some fields where the worms ate the entire plant, leaving just a tiny stem above the water. The outbreaks tended to be on the edges or corners of fields, but some fields saw infestations that were much more spread out, he noted.

Warmer conditions also restricted development of diseases such as blast, which has not been a major problem for the last two years, Espino said.

Early-maturing, medium-grain varieties such as the M-205 and M-206 are now standard in the Sacramento Valley, comprising most of the state's acreage, he noted. Farmers also are planting varieties that mature even earlier, such as the M-104 and M-105, because a shorter growing season allows them to save water, he said. But he noted very early varieties tend to be adapted to areas with cooler conditions, while later-maturing varieties such as the M-401 earn a higher price and do better in warmer areas of Colusa, Glenn and Sutter counties.

"If you grow those, you're willing to take the risk of harvesting later, so you get a premium," he said.

Butte County farmer David Lundberg said this is the third year he has grown M-105, a relatively new variety that has yielded well for him. With the water savings from the earlier crop, he said he now has a little water left over to flood one field to help with straw decomposition.

With harvest wrapping up, Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission, said concern now turns to how much land can be flooded for wintering waterfowl.

California rice farmers normally flood about 250,000 to 300,000 acres in the winter, said Paul Buttner, the commission's environmental affairs manager. But this year, winter-flooded acreage is expected to be about one-third of average, he noted.

"Flooded rice fields provide a tremendous amount of food for the waterfowl in the wintertime," he said, noting that rice fields account for about 60 percent of what the birds eat during the winter and three times more than what the state's wetlands provide.

McClellan said the Natomas Mutual Water District, which provides most of his irrigation water, has already notified him that there won't be any water available this fall for straw decomposition.

"As dry as it's been so far, there is not a bright outlook for fall decomp water or any use for waterfowl," he said.

Farmers typically chop the rice straw, work it into the soil and flood the field to decompose the after-harvest residue. Without water for flooding, Colusa County grower Chris Torres said he's trying a different method this year—shredding the straw into smaller pieces, which will cost him 50 percent more to do, and hoping "for a lot of rain."

"That's all we're going to do because there's just not enough water," he said.

Torres said the rice market is not as strong as it was this time last year, with the higher-value dollar hurting U.S. exports. Farmers in other rice-growing states such as Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas are "picking up some of our slack" by producing more medium-grain rice, he noted.

In the specialty rice market, Bryce Lundberg, vice president of agriculture for Lundberg Family Farms (and no relation to David Lundberg), said organic rice is now one of the fastest-growing market segments in the U.S. The company sells organic and conventional rice and rice products, with more than 95 percent of its sales in the U.S. and Canada.

"The organic market is healthy and growing," Lundberg said. "I think it's always looking for something new, looking for the staple—and for us it's organic short-grain brown 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.

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