Combines are lumbering through almost 620,000 acres of California rice, gathering what is certain to be a record crop that could reach 50 million hundredweight.

The last time California planted 600,000 acres of rice was 1981, the year after prices reached $14 per hundredweight. The largest crop California has produced so far was 43.5 million sacks in 2000. Rice is growing on fields this season that have not seen rice in a decade.

The telltale clue that this is a huge crop will be the lines of truck at Sacramento Valley driers waiting to unload.

The crop started out with great expectations; a manageable carryover and promising sales prospects. Unfortunately, the sales did not materialize and the carryover on Oct. 1 could be 5.5 million hundredweight, according to Bill Huffman, vice president of Farmers' Rice Cooperative, Sacramento, Calif.

“We will have over 50 million bags of rice to market this season — a substantial marketing challenge compared to prior years,” said Huffman.

It is a high quality crop in the field waiting for combines to gather it. Growers are hopeful north winds do not spoil it during the 45-day harvest season that is well under way and expected to continue until Oct. 15.

Before California rice growers began seeding what became the largest crop in California history, prices were unbelievably good, as much as $8.50 over government loan. The price got so high California beer breweries were “importing” cheaper Southern U.S. long grain rice into California to get around high California prices.

Since then the price has plummeted $8 per hundredweight from spring prices, not because there is a worldwide glut of rice. The glut is only in California because some traditional California rice markets did not materialize over the summer and warehouses are bulging with old crop rice as the record rice crop comes in.

Storage scramble

Huffman said millers have scrambled to find storage for old crop rice to make room for the new crop.

“It is going to be tight, but we can probably get the entire new crop under cover,” said Huffman.

John Gilbert of Adams Grain in Arbuckle, Calif., said there is a critical shortage of truck drivers this year for all crops. It could become acute during rice harvest. He expects long waits at driers.

Butte County Rice Growers Association (BUCRA) grower members Steve Rystrom and Curt Josiassen, both rice farmers in the Richvale, Calif., area, say BUCRA increased its drying capacity several years ago and there should be minimal waits there.

“The capacity of the combines used today is amazing,” said BUCRA president Carl Hoff. Twenty years ago growers had harvesting capacity to load only a single set of doubles in a day. Today, with the newer combines they can expect to load 10 sets of doubles in a day, if the rice is not severely lodged.

“BUCRA should be as good as anybody this season keeping trucks moving in and out of the driers,” said Rystrom. “Getting the rice to the drier at the right moisture at the right time is critical to maintain quality. When you fail to do that is when you lose money.”

Josiassen operates his own on-farm drier and trucks.

“I think we are ready for this crop, but that does not mean I am not nervous,” said Hoff.

Eighty sacks per acre is considered an average yield. However the average includes lower-yielding specialty rice types. California growers produce predominantly medium grain rice and 90-sack yields per are (9,000 pounds) are common in some of the newer rice varieties.

90-plus likely

“I would be more surprised to get less than 90 sacks per acre this year than more than 90 sacks,” said Yuba City, Calif., rice grower Charlie Hoppin.

Rystrom and Josiassen concur.

“Planting weather was great. Last year it rained through most of the spring and it was June before we planted. This year the weather was ideal during the prime planting time from about the fourth week of April to second week of May. If you planted late, it was only because you wanted to,” he said.

Growing season weather conditions were ideal, “just the right amount of heat and no cold nights of any significance. Cold nighttime temperatures can really hurt a crop. Nothing negative happened so the potential is there for a huge crop,” said Rystrom.

Weed pressure continues to be the major cost for rice growers.

“I sprayed three times for weeds this year where I would normally spray only once or maybe twice,” said Josiassen. Growing weed resistance to registered herbicides is one reason for that. Another is prime rice growing weather is also prime weed growing weather, said Josiassen.

“We thought armyworms might come in and be a problem, but they did not materialize. Weevils and shrimp were not a major problem,” said Rystrom.

The only obstacle to a record, high quality crop is the threat of a north wind at optimal harvest time. “If you are just about ready to harvest at 20 or 21 moisture and a hard north wind blows in, quality drops off dramatically,” said Rystrom. “BUCRA sees a downturn in quality when that happens.”

“A south wind does not bother the crop,” he added.

Price plummet

While crop size is a big topic at the coffee shops, the price plummet since spring is an even bigger one.

There are growers who held out for spot prices of $10 per hundredweight over loan when the price got up to $8.50. They are now offering their stored rice for only 50 cents over loan, according to Huffman and Rystrom.

“Of course not everyone is in that boat,” said Rystrom. Producers in marketing pools will likely do well on the average. Others in the spot market locked in at $4, $5 and $6 over loan when the price started falling.

However, there are rice farmers who left $8 per hundredweight on the table this year.

Reason for the free fall was not a world oversupply of rice. It is too much California rice. Huffman said Turkey has not lifted its ban on imports as expected.

“Turkey normally takes a couple million hundredweight of California rice each year, but it has not taken that this year. Turkey has still not issued import licenses and that has been a big blow,” Huffman said. Plus, Taiwan and Japan did not tender offers in July as expected. And, there were no PL-480 purchases as there have been in the past.

“Fortunately, domestic demand has been strong for California rice. We have not seen much affect on our markets as a result of the Atkins diet,” said Huffman. “The type of rice we produce in California is preferred by the Asian population in this country and the Atkins diet does not to seem to affect that segment of the population.”

However, California rice is highly dependent on world trade.

“That is why the current WTO discussions and negotiations are so critically important to California. We have to export and successful expansion into markets in Japan, Korea and Taiwan is critically important to move this crop,” said Huffman.

Regaining access to the Middle East markets like Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon is also critical, added Huffman.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com