Regulations cloud, opportunities spark outlook for California rice industry

California's $500 million rice industry has had to make at least three fundamental changes in the way the crop has been grown in recent years, and more are in store for the state's 2,500 producers, according to Tim Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the California Rice Commission (CRC).

“We will have to change the way we grow rice — just as fundamentally as when we began water seeding in California, started rice straw decomposition, and began water holding periods that became the backbone of our water quality programs,” he said.

Johnson laid out his take on the current California rice industry to rice researchers, Extension personnel, farmers, and others from around the world at the 32nd annual Rice Technical Working Group meeting in San Diego, Calif.

Like much of California agriculture, Johnson said rice growers face significant competition — not from markets but from available resources like quality air and water.

“I believe air quality challenges will literally change the way we farm rice and the way agriculture is conducted in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys,” Johnson said.

Already on the books is air quality legislation sponsored four years ago by California Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, to improve air quality in the San Joaquin Valley (SJV). Today regulations require farm permits for air quality emissions, phased down agricultural burning in the entire SJV, mandated farm management plans, and mandatory best available control measures.

Beyond the Florez agenda, additional state and federal air quality standards through state and federal implementation plans will place air quality basins under the microscope to determine compliance and shore up non-compliance.

“Previous ozone standards in California required compliance one hour per day. New state ozone standards will require compliance eight hours a day,” Johnson said.

Currently 18 percent of California's rice acreage is located in ozone non-attainment areas. The new regulations could push that number to 50 percent in five years.

“This is a whole new era of regulations for ozone precursors,” Johnson said. “For rice and the rest of agriculture, you're looking at volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pesticides, and equipment emissions,” Johnson said.

“I believe rice will lose pesticides to new VOC requirements. Manufacturers will have to reformulate pesticides to meet the VOC standards. At a minimum, high VOC materials will require the development and implementation of best management practices for continued VOC use.”

A second major regulation for rice growers is reductions in allowable particulate matter (PM) sizing down to 2.5 microns. The California Air Resources Board has developed exposure limits that will impact about 50 percent of California rice acres, Johnson said. Currently, rice acres are not impacted by PM standards.

The most significant impact will be on engines, dust, pumps, trucks, and tractors. Already affected by the regulations is the construction industry which Johnson said faces replacing older equipment by 2010 at an estimated cost of $3 billion.

“The Air Resources Board is looking at measures that would require farmers to either replace trucks, or rebuild the engines and possibly retrofit the emission controls, not once but twice in the next nine years to meet the standards,” Johnson said.

Water quality

A second level of regulation deals with the competition for clean water. Three years ago the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, developed by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, was imposed on the seven million acres of irrigated agriculture in the Central Valley.

According to Johnson, the scope of the unprecedented move was to manage all surface water for all constituents that may impact water quality, those added by current farmers, those added by farmers who preceded the current farm operators, and discharges from the farm.

“For the first time, agriculture including rice had to monitor all surface water for pesticides, nutrients, metals, biological materials, and sediment coming off the fields,” Johnson said. “If found, best management practices were required along with measuring until the problems were solved.”

In the next few years, farmers can expect groundwater to join the regulation portfolio. “The rice industry knows very little on its impact on groundwater. That means it will take a lot of monitoring, money, and science to identify and solve the issues that will eventually arise,” Johnson said.

Future of California rice

Johnson offered bottom line perspectives on how air and water quality regulations will impact the California rice industry's future.

His predictions:

  1. Air quality regulations in the next five years will demand dust reductions during fieldwork. If growers can't manage the dust, no tillage days will become reality.

  2. Reduced diesel emissions - Farmers will be required to replace their tractors and pumps or the engines. Retrofitted engines must meet California standards.

  3. Rice growers will lose pesticides, requiring the development of lower VOC pesticides. Best management practices on pesticides will be directed. No spray days will take place on bad quality air days in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys.

  4. Rice straw burning - Growers will have fewer opportunities to burn fields. “Probably the biggest slap in the industry's face will be the reduced opportunity to decompose rice straw due to methane emissions from the decomposition process,” Johnson said.

  5. Water quality - Growers will reduce or no flow water from rice fields to meet tighter water quality regulations. Water coming off the end of the field is a management and monitoring nightmare. “Growers will have to find a way to not discharge certain constituents to groundwater. I have no idea how growers will be able to achieve that,” Johnson said.

Seeds of optimism

Despite the regulatory duress, Johnson offered several rays of hope for the rice industry — cashing in on agriculture's low greenhouse gas emissions status plus the biofuels boom.

Agriculture contributes about 8 percent of the total greenhouse gasses in California with rice accounting for about .15 percent of the emissions, Johnson noted.

“Public utilities and making concrete are two major contributors of greenhouse gas. I think the smaller contributors such as rice will have an opportunity in the system of cap and trade to generate some savings, and sell them to the big guys who will need cheaper offsets compared to what they can generate.”

To that end, the CRC has partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund on a $1.2 million grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to quantify rice's greenhouse emissions, develop management practices, and create a gold standard model for trading emissions credits - all voluntary, Johnson said.

California must reduce its greenhouse emissions by 30 percent by 2020. In the event efforts fall short, Johnson thinks agriculture could benefit.

The second positive on the horizon for rice growers is the swelling biofuels industry and the longer-term emphasis toward cellulose (plant-based) ethanol. Rice straw could be a perfect ingredient.

“The rice straw decomposing in the field or in the bale on the side of the field could have greater use,” Johnson said. “If you add the greenhouse gas credits created from cellulosic ethanol, I think the benefits to rice growers could be significant.”

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