Rice is not only a staple diet for millions, perhaps billions of people around the world, it serves as a staple crop for growers in California’s Sacramento Valley like Wally and Sandy Denn, owners of Snow Goose Farms in Willows.
Rice is all the Denn family does. They are not diversified as many other growers are in California.
“I don’t know any other means of making a living,” said Wally.
“I decided that when my folks had sheep and rice that I definitely liked the rice better than the sheep,” Sandy said. “Sheep are like goldfish; every so often they simply like to turn belly up and die.”
Rice harvest for the Denn family came a bit later than their neighboring rice growers. By mid-October much of California’s rice crop was already cut and stored in silos for drying and milling. The Denn family’s 750 acres of medium-grain rice was harvested in late October, just ahead of an autumn storm that seemed to surprise forecasters and farmers alike.
Harvest for the Denns is a family affair. In California rice country that not only includes kin, but neighbors, who chip in to help get the crop off the fields and into the silos, hopefully before the weather turns sour. On this particular sunny Sacramento Valley day, a few neighbors joined Wally and Sandy, including their sons Mark Denn and Perry Bronner, to harvest this year’s crop.
“Unlike a lot of operations, where people are competing against each other, farmers come and actually help each other out,” Mark said. “The community really does band together to help.”
Mark and Perry rent 160 acres of rice fields from their parents. Their rice crop is kept separate from their parent’s rice, including where it is shipped. While Sandy and Wally store and dry their own rice and sell it through a broker, Mark and Perry’s rice is handled by American Commodity Corporation, which has silos a few miles from where their rice is grown.
Runways to rice fields
As a pilot for Southwest Airlines, much of Mark’s time is spent away from the farm. For his part of the partnership, Mark handles the financial aspects of the farming operation and his step-brother, Perry, handles the day-to-day operations.
“I always told him he needs to get a real job,” Wally jokes of Mark’s full-time career as a pilot.
Prior to joining Southwest Airlines 15 years ago Mark flew combat missions for the Air Force in F-15 Eagle’s. He later was involved in pilot training in the Air Force. He now lives about an hour south of the Willows rice fields. He flies out of Oakland, Calif.
“I got involved with the farming a little bit when I got out of the Air Force and moved back here,” Mark said. “They do most everything out here; I’m just here to help out a little bit.”
Rice is planted is mid-April through May, according to Wally. The two varieties they planted this year – M205 and M206 – are medium grain varieties developed at the nearby Rice Experiment Station (RES) in Biggs. Wally said both are hardy varieties that average close together in yield. Sandy said they may exclusively plant M206 next year because it is not as subject to blast as the M205.
According to RES Director Kent McKenzie, 90 percent of the rice grown in California is developed by the RES. Part of the station’s objective is to develop rice that is resistant to disease pressures such as blast and stem rot. Aggressive sheath spot blast is the most prevalent disease affecting rice around the world, according to McKenzie.
The RES is a non-profit organization that works in cooperation with the University of California and USDA. The facility is owned by rice growers.
Weed pressure can also play a part in rice production, according to McKenzie.
Sandy blames part of the growth in weed pressures over the years to the efficiencies growers have employed to reduce water use. Laser leveling of fields has helped improve water efficiency. While conserving water, the practice has helped weeds flourish in some cases.
“Weeds are more prevalent than they used to be,” Sandy said. “There are a lot of weeds that we used to drown out with water that we aren’t able to drown now, so we have to come in with weed control products.”
Another factor affecting rice farmers over the years is the reduced burning of rice straw allowed because of air regulations. Not only did this help with weed control, but it was a great way of eliminating disease, such as blast. While markets have developed for rice straw, they don’t consume all of the straw created. The only time straw can be burned anymore is in a certified case of disease, and then only a maximum of 25 percent of a field can be burned to destroy the disease.
As with growers elsewhere in California, water is also a vital issue. Fortunately for Snow Goose Farms, the water rights and availability they enjoy can, at most, cut them back to 75 percent of their total allocation.
California’s Sacramento Valley is prime real estate for growing rice. Good water availability from the Sacramento River, low humidity and heavy soils combine to make for excellent rice-growing conditions. The lack of summer rains provides excellent growing conditions, as it reduces the chance of fungal diseases, according to McKenzie.
Technology has helped improve rice yields over the years, according to McKenzie. Machines that cut 25-foot swaths of rice at 2-3 mph can make quick work of a rice field. It also helps growers improve their chances at quality incentives by allowing them to get the rice harvested quickly and into silos during short windows of time where weather can make a difference between a good harvest and mediocre harvest.
Wally likes the fact that he can watch his rice quality while he is harvesting. The Case IH harvesters he uses come with computers that record moisture content and rice lost in the cutting process. Computer software can also be helpful in determining what soil amendments to apply prior to the next year’s planting.
“These are very clean machines,” he said. “We lose very little rice during the harvest.”
Rice growers are paid on volume and quality. Machines are tooled to avoid cracking the heads of rice, which discounts the price to growers. It is also important to harvest the rice at optimum moisture levels to avoid cracking.
Of the growers who ship through SunWest in Woodland, Calif., where Wally and Sandy market their rice, nobody had higher quality rice last season than they did.
“I won’t have it this year,” he said of his high quality honors. “Last year we had an exceptionally good year.”
Rice samples are judged on head quality, Wally says. Sample scores consider the total count of kernels against the number of good kernels. The closer the two numbers are: total count and good kernels, the higher the quality of rice and the higher the payout to the grower.
Last year Snow Goose Farms had total head rice counts in his samples of 73-74, with his lowest quality head count of 70.
“There’s about six cents per point of head rice,” he said. “If I got 70/72 and someone else got 60/72, that’s 10 points or about 60 cents per (100 pound) bag.”
Quality rice at harvest is why Wally says he stays with the Case IH machines.
“If you get a machine that can give you good head rice, you can pay for the machine in the difference you save,” he said.
Snow Goose Farms is aptly named. It sits on the northern edge of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, which sits along the east side of Interstate 5. In the winter months millions of water fowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway stop for a break or winter over in the region. One of the more populous birds is the snow goose, which fills the valley skies by the thousands during its migration.
The harvested rice fields in the Sacramento Valley also make for excellent feeding grounds for the migrating birds. The California Rice Commission reports that about 230 different wildlife species make their home in and around rice fields. These fields provide as much as 60 percent of the food for the estimated 7-10 million wintering ducks and geese that use the Pacific Flyway.
California produces more than two million tons of rice annually, making it second only to Arkansas in terms of total U.S. rice production. California leads the nation in the production of sweet rice and wild rice, according to the State of California. About 40 percent of California’s rice is exported. Top export markets include Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Turkey.
In 2011, rice was harvested from 580,000 acres of farmland in California. The leading rice producing counties in the state include Colusa, Sutter, Glenn, Butte and Yuba.
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