After a couple dismal years of water availability, California’s rice harvest is on track for “normal.”
Last year, California rice growers harvested rice from about 75 percent of the land typically used for growing rice. In raw numbers that was about 421,000 out of a more normal 550,000 acres of the crop. This year’s figure, pegged at 545,000 acres by the California Rice Commission (CRC), is down slightly from the estimated 564,000 acres the U.S. Department of Agriculture says growers planted this year.
As of the end of October, about 90 percent of the state’s total rice acreage had been harvested and moved to storage, says Jim Morris, CRC spokesman.
Unlike last year which had near-perfect weather conditions during the early-fall harvest window, the weather was a challenge for this year’s harvest. Growers were either running hard to beat early-season rains or had to battle the wet consequences of it.
Tom Butler, a grower in the southern Sacramento Valley, said he finished his rice harvest in late October, just ahead of the major rain storms that hit the area with several inches of rain.
For Butler, this was the first year in several that he was able to plant 100 percent of his fields with rice because of restricted water conditions in the state. This year Butler grew 4,100 acres of M206, a medium-grain rice popular among growers in the Northstate.
During the two most previous seasons, Butler was able to plant 2,900-3,000 acres because of water restrictions.
Josh Sheppard, who grows rice in partnership with family members in the northern growing region of Butte County, likewise was able to plant all of his acreage – about 3,000 acres to rice - because of better water conditions. He finished harvest just ahead of the late-October storm that dumped several inches of rain on Northern California.
Sheppard grows three varieties of medium-grain rice – M105, M205 and M206. He also produces rice for certified seed production. He was fortunate, he admits, as he harvested before the big rains hit.
According to the National Weather Service, Sacramento, Calif. reported 420 percent of normal rainfall for the month of October. California’s rice-growing region recorded rainfall amounts in excess of 200 percent of normal during the same month.
Aside from the water restrictions of recent years, rice growers also dealt with what Cass Mutters, rice specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Butte County ,called “a biblical infestation” of armyworm last year that, for some growers, was still around this year, albeit in reduced numbers.
Sheppard says he did not have the worm pressure this year that he saw last year.
Mutters suspects that along with reduced armyworm numbers, growers likely used the lessons learned from last year to start early with well-timed insecticide applications to help control armyworm populations.
Growers also had to contend with issues surrounding blast and stem rot, according to Mutters.
Mutter says growers who harvested early tended to have higher quality rice, compared to those who harvested later. The weather had much to do with quality of the later harvest. He suspects this year’s overall rice harvest could be somewhat lower quality than last year’s crop because of the near-perfect weather growers experienced during last year’s harvest.
For Sheppard, his rice quality this year ranged from what he terms “normal” to high.
The price paid for rice has been another challenge for California farmers. Sheppard says rice prices to the grower remain at or below the cost of production.
On the flip side, the availability of water for the crop and for rice straw decomposition was a bright spot for growers. The added benefit of flooding fields shortly after harvest is the return of migratory birds which blanket rice fields with millions of waterfowl and raptors throughout the winter months.
For Sheppard, the use of “decomp” water, as it’s called, allows him to participate in Natural Resource Conservation Service and Nature Conservancy programs that tend to be a win-win for rice growers and nature.
Most of California’s rice crop – over 500,000 acres of it – is medium grain varieties. Short grain varieties (or Sushi rice, as some call it) command about 45,000 acres of farmland with the remainder in long-grain varieties.