California rice benefits local economies and multitude of wildlife species

Rice fields like this one just north of Sacramento, Calif. support a host of jobs an economic activities, including Farm AIr Flying Service just across the canal from this rice field.

California rice plantings down 32 percent - 375,000 acres

Planted California rice acreage estimate based on seed sales Additional water curtailments could impact harvested acres more than first suspected Impacts of reduced rice water will be seen in local economies and to wildlife

The California Rice Commission (CRC) expects crop plantings at 375,000 acres this year, down from the annual 550,000 average - or a 32-percent reduction, largely tied to the ongoing extreme drought.

The CRC prediction came just days before the State Water Resources Control Board began another round of closing irrigation taps to farmers. 

Actual harvested acreage could be vastly different with water curtailments now extending to senior water rights holders. Many have already made planting decisions that could require them to walk away from crops leading to dead plants.

The planted rice estimate is solely based on seed sales, according to Tim Johnson, CRC president.

Mike Daddow, a grower of rice in the Sacramento, Natomas and Nicolaus areas, hopes to plant 450 acres of rice this season. He typically plants about 600 acres of medium grain, short grain and sweet rice.

The loss of water has also impacted the custom farming that he does. He expects to be down about 300 acres in custom farming work this year.

The loss of rice land not only impacts whole economies in the northern San Joaquin and southern Sacramento valleys of California. It also means lost habitat for millions of birds and other wildlife.

“We’re managing water for a lot of purposes here,” says David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, an organization whose mission is to “advance the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the Sacramento Valley by enhancing and preserving its water rights, supplies and water quality.”

Billions of dollars

According to California State University, Chico Professor Eric Houk, 550,000 acres of California rice translates to over $1 billion in economic value to the State of California. This year’s rice totals will likely be well short of the figure.

Houk says with fewer acres of rice planted the California rice industry will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in fewer rice receipts, which will ripple throughout the state’s economy and hurt local communities the most.

The same is true for other commodities. As fewer acres of crops are planted, fewer jobs are provided and fewer crops are sold.

“We need to think of agriculture more broadly than just the production of commodities,” Houk says.

For agricultural resource economists including Houk, agriculture’s impacts starts well before the grocery store and extend well beyond the farm fields through what are known as “induced” and “indirect” effects. These are the economic results of farmers buying seed, supplies and capital, employees shopping in local stores and the ancillary service and support businesses that crop up to serve farmers and ranchers.

Houk expects for every dollar in reduced rice production local economies may see a 50-cent reduction in money flowing through them.

He is working to document the economies of specific regions in northern California to determine just how much of a roll agriculture plays in local economies.

Beyond economics are the environmental enhancements rice plays in California. Because the Pacific Flyway is directly overhead, these rice fields are a temporary or permanent home of millions of waterfowl and other wildlife species.

“We really count on the flooded acres of rice,” said Mark Biddlecomb, western regional director for Ducks Unlimited.

Without these flooded acres duck habitat suffers, he says. Biddlecomb even pointed to the loss of available hunting land for duck hunters and the loss in revenue through the reduced sale of hunting licenses and duck stamps as one of many economic factors resulting from the loss of rice water.

Biddlecomb also fears that a consolidation of water fowl and other wildlife in the few remaining acres of rice could lead to disease and other health issues for a host of species this year.

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