Rice grower Sean Doherty believes the success of his northern California farm is based on a “we” attitude, rather than “I” – calling the operation a successful team effort including his wife Melissa and their dedicated, hard-working employees.
“We have a great crew,” Sean says. “They are really good people, work hard, and I’m thankful for them. They make the reason for working hard easy.”
Sean V. Doherty Farms, located at Arbuckle, includes Sean and Melissa and their 15 full time and up to 30 seasonal employees.
Sean says, “I have been blest to have wonderful people who agree to work with me and my wife.”
Doherty is a third generation California farmer, who succeeded his father Michael Doherty and grandfather James “Vince” Doherty after their passing. Vince started the farm from scratch.
Sean and Melissa have three children – Hannah, 14; Gus, 12; and Mary 6. The farm headquarters is located several hundred yards north of the Colusa-Yolo county line.
The diversified farming operation includes about 2,000 acres of rice (under full water allocations), along with almonds, processing tomatoes, alfalfa, sunflowers, corn for grain, wheat, safflower, and hay crops. Some of crops are grown for seed.
The Doherty business also includes custom planting-harvesting services for area farmers.
Doherty acknowledges not only his enjoyment of growing rice, but that as a rice connoisseur. Among his favorite dinner dishes is a bowl of Calrose rice with sausage on top.
He chuckles, “I would eat rice three meals a day – seven days a week - if my wife would let me. I’d be as happy as a clam.”
Doherty says rice is a good crop to grow in California.
“Its great quality rice and we have a great story to tell,” the rice grower says. “We have great quality water and soil, and good people and their families grow the crop. We grow rice efficiently with minimum inputs and take great care of the environment.”
During the winter months, many California rice farms are a haven for wildlife flying along the Pacific Flyway. Flooded winter rice fields are perfect feeding grounds and resting areas for wildlife, including those on the Doherty farm.
“I have more animals than you can shake a stick at,” he shares. “We are planting head row strips to attract more wildlife.”
He adds, “I like to see wildlife. We have otters, beavers, great horned owls, black tail deer, and more. I enjoy seeing bald eagles in my fields.”
California rice specifics
Doherty’s 2015 rice crop was planted in medium-grain varieties grown for grain and seed, including M205, M206, plus the new foundation variety M209.
Rice is typically planted in the Sacramento Valley where the Doherty farm is located from April 15 through May 20. The grain is typically harvested by combine from early September through late October, in normal water years.
The region’s average water use to produce a rice crop is about 3.3 acre feet according to the California Water Board, says Doherty. The soil at the Doherty farm is ‘Sacramento clay,’ a very heavy “straight clay” which water cannot percolate. He says the only water loss is from evaporation.
Doherty’s water source for rice is settlement contract water from the Sacramento River.
“At the end of the year when I pull my boards, all the water goes back in the drain and gets pumped back in the river.”
California agriculture has suffered from four back-to-back years of severe drought. Yet Doherty contends drought years are typically his “best farming years” with average rice yields at more than 100 (hundred-pound) sacks per acre, or 10,000 pounds total per acre.
Yields in non-drought years tend to average slightly less - about 95 sacks per acre, or 9,500 pounds per acre. He sells his rice grain to Farmers’ Rice Cooperative in Sacramento.
Many crop growers in California agriculture might think that rice yields would be lower in drought years, but Doherty says the opposite is true.
“If you are rice farming in a drought year it means you have the water,” says Doherty. “In a drought, the grower can plant and better manage their rice crop according to their schedule. Planting is not delayed due to a wet spring. The growing season is warm – not wet and humid – so there is little disease pressure.”
When disease is found in Doherty’s rice fields it’s usually stem rot or sheath spot. Both are treated with the fungicide Quadris later in the growing season.
On the pest side, tadpole shrimp, which resemble a baby horseshoe crab, are an occasional pest at seeding time, controlled by an application of Lambda-Cy insecticide. The numbers of rice water weevil rarely reach the economic threshold to warrant treatment.
Doherty says California grower rice prices have been soft in recent years. For the 2014 crop, the average California grower price was around $20.50 per hundred-pound sack – about $14 over the average loan value of $6.50.
“Rice has been a profitable crop for us in recent years,” Doherty said.
Like many farmers, he enjoys the farming lifestyle, including the time spent outdoors, performing different tasks every day, working with people, and watching the seasons change.
“In the spring, I like the smell of dirt, especially the first time when you turn it over in the field and the dirt underneath is wet. I enjoy scooping it up and enjoying the fresh dirt smell.”
Doherty’s morning route to work is –well – short. “I pass two cars during my morning commute” - the two vehicles in the driveway as he walks the short distance from home to the farm office.
Giving back to rice industry
And he enjoys the contributions that farmers make for the common good.
“As a farmer, I feel like I’m doing something good for the community and the world – and adding something to society. I just can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Off the farm, Doherty is involved in several organizations, including service as a board member for Reclamation District 108. He serves on the executive committee of the California Rice Commission (CRC) where he occasionally blogs about life on the farm.
“Sean exemplifies the new generation of leadership that we are seeing in rice which makes me optimistic about our future,” says Tim Johnson, the CRC’s chief executive officer. “We're seeing an influx of folks over time – ‘younger guys like Sean’ - who are willing to share their time and energy.”
Doherty also chairs the USA Rice Council, the funding arm for the USA Rice Federation, and the USA Rice PAC, and holds other industry positions.
Making a better farmer
To Doherty, it’s important to give back to agriculture which has given so much to him.
“Serving off the farm has given me the opportunity to give back to those which have given me so much,” Doherty says. “These experiences have exposed my mind to different ideas which in the end have made me a better farmer and manager.”
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