Colusa County rice farmers Ben and Denise Carter

The Sutter Buttes provide a scenic backdrop for Ben and Denise Carter’s organic long-grain rice in rural Colusa County.

Benden Farms builds sustainability into diversification

Benden Farms produces 3,000 acres of rice, plus row and orchard crops in Colusa County, Calif. Ben Carter recalls days working at Apple Computer Denise Carter serves on Colusa Board of Supervisors

Ben and Denise Carter met while working for competing companies far from the bucolic slice of life they’ve since carved for themselves in rural northern California.

Married in 1981, the pair found their way in engineering and marketing before Ben went to work for a company with roots in a Palo Alto garage.

“I never did meet him,” Ben said of Steve Jobs, founder and creator of Apple Computer.

“I was there during the (John) Scully years,” he said of his time working for Apple Computer. Scully was tapped to be CEO of Apple Computer at a time when the company was growing exponentially. That was the age of small hard drives and RAM incapable of opening today’s powerful software programs.

In a sense, the Carters have never left energy and technology, though what they do now is covert it to food.

Ben and Denise own Benden Farms (the name taken after their first names), a diversified farming operation situated along a scenic stretch of narrow highway north of the community of Colusa, Calif.

The move to Colusa came in 1993 after Ben’s father Robert Carter pondered his retirement.

“He always said that my sister and I went to college on a cucumber seed scholarship,” Ben said of his father, who was a pioneer in the vine seed business in the 1960s and 1970s.

Denise recalls the process of them moving from the Bay Area to Colusa County 22 years ago.

“It was one of those life-changing decisions,” she said. “My husband was working at Apple and I was at Texaco. He really wanted his own business.”

She continues: “He was looking around for small manufacturing businesses to acquire; at the same time his parents bought this ranch (speaking of the one Ben and Denise now call home). We were at a point where we had a six-year-old and a two-year-old – if we ever wanted to consider it this might be the right time to do it.”

Prospect in front of them, Ben and Denise took the weekend to get away and think about it. She said they’ve never looked back or questioned the decision.

“This gave us the opportunity to become self-employed,” she said.

The home they now live in wasn’t near the size it is when they discovered it more than two decades ago. Then it was a small two-bedroom house beneath large shade trees, separated from the Sacramento River by a levee. It has since been expanded to include a screened-in porch with a calming view of the yard and levee.

Farming operation

Benden Farms is a diversified farming operation that extends across 3,000 acres of river-bottom in the southern half of the Sacramento Valley. Levees and weirs protect homes and property in the area from significant flood events. The Moulton Weir flows through some of their property, forcing them at times of high river flows to relocate cattle.

Much of Benden Farms is dedicated to organic rice – long grain Jasmine and Basmati varieties that are processed primarily by Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale. Other commodities produced in the rich soil include beans, vine seeds, sunflowers, winter wheat, and the occasional corn crop. There are over 30 crops in all produced by the Carter family.

The conversion to organic began in 1997.

“We had a lot of interest for some organic row crops, so we converted 25 percent into certified organic and began the three-year transition into that,” Ben said.

“The economics for us on the conventional rice side were not penciling very well,” he continued. “On the organic side, the rice was doing fairly well.” That led to the decision to transition the remainder of the 800-acre ranch into organic production, of which 700 acres is planted in organic rice.

A more stable price for the organic rice also made the decision easier.

Ben admits that rice acreage was down the past two years due to water allocations and availability. They wound up fallowing about 20 percent of their rice ground in this time. They are Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, meaning they have more senior water rights than some farmers have in the region.

“Organic rice is somewhat insulated from world commodity prices,” he continues. “The pricing is not nearly as volatile as the world rice price can be.”

Rice was the first commodity they certified. Eventually they would add other crops and additional acreage to the practice.

Working on soil biodiversity

“We are also implementing some of our organic practices in our conventional production to try and improve the soil biodiversity and conventional production,” Ben said.

Producing organic means more than the list of fertilizers and insecticides that are approved or not. It also means an aggressive implementation of integrated pest management practices to monitor for bad and good pests.

Other organic growers tend to be a good resource as well.

“I learn a lot more from other growers about organic production than I do from UC or my PCAs,” Ben said.

“Those guys are just kind of getting started in the power curve with chemicals,” he continued. “Our pest control starts with a healthy ecosystem out there that has the beneficial insects and the nutrients in the soil and the water.”

“You do a lot of monitoring for different pests,” Ben said. “You don’t just treat because that’s what you do – it’s more prescriptive than cookbook.”

Lundberg Family Farms, a rice producer and processor in nearby Richvale, has about three grower meetings annually that the Carters take advantage of to learn more of the various organic practices they can employ with their crops.

In the organic rice Ben has learned how to use chicken litter as a fertilizer and to experiment with approved sources of nitrogen.

“We find that our organic rice is a little shorter season,” he said. The reason for that is the nutrients from the chicken littler “don’t have the staying power that a synthetic fertilizer has,” and as such the rice “tends to run out of steam as it matures.”

On the conventional side Benden Farms works closely with the University of California Cooperative Extension and Farm Advisor Franz Niederholzer, an orchard systems expert from the nearby Yuba City office, to implement effective practices on the farm.

“They’re a tremendous resource on the conventional side,” Denise says.

Prunes and walnuts are grown on part of the ranch. Ben says both tend to do better in the soils on the east side of the river, where they’re located. Another part of the ranch is set aside for pasture land for their small cow-calf beef operation.

Cattle operation

The cattle graze on pasture grass and are fattened up on alfalfa rather than grain. That side of the operation is not certified organic, though Denise says they could sell their beef as “all-natural” if they had the time to track and manage what is needed to prove that label for the markets. Growing 30-some commodities keeps them too busy to do that, she says.

Making the jump to organic beef would be relatively simple, Ben admits as much of the pasture ground is already certified organic.

Both see growth opportunities in organic production and incentives for companies to work with organic producers.

For Ben farming is a way of life he wouldn’t trade for his time spent in the corporate world.

 “The one thing about agriculture is you’re constantly learning and just when you’ve got it figured out Mother Nature changes the rules,” he says.

Being outdoors and self-employed also fits with an earlier goal of Ben’s.

“I love working outdoors,” he says. “I feel like I am adding a lot of value to society by growing food.”

To him it’s something tangible.

Ben continued: “I worked on Wall Street for a summer in a banking role. When we first moved up here I had some friends there and it kind of bothered me that the investment bankers and all of my business school buddies who went to Wall Street – they were making huge amounts of money and then you think about the value they were adding and it seemed like they were benefitting more than they were adding value.”

Ben says his satisfaction is in producing something that fulfills a basic human need: food.

Denise too likes the lifestyle as they can easily go for walks and soak in the tranquility of the fields and the nearby river. The food they grow on the farm will also make up most of what they serve guests when they entertain.

Both are active in the local community. Denise serves on the Colusa County Board of Supervisors and Ben is involved with the Colusa County Fair Foundation. He also serves on the board of the Center of Land-Based Learning, which has as its mission the cultivation of opportunity for the land, youth, environment, business and the future of agriculture.

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