Charley Mathews and Frank Rehermann are poised for payday as their combines roll through their northern Sacramento Valley, Calif., rice fields following a challenging growing season mired by cool and wet spring weather.

“2010 has probably been the most challenging year for me in the rice business,” said Mathews, 44, owner of C and H Farms in Marysville in Yuba County. “This has been a year for the history books.”

Mathews began harvest the last week of September. Initial yield returns were 8,000 pounds (80, 100-pound sacks) of medium-grain Calrose rice per acre; an average yield in the Valley. About 85 percent of all California rice is the Calrose japonica type.

“I will be happy with an average yield,” said Mathews as he stood on the rice field edge which about 30 years ago was irrigated pasture for an onsite dairy. “The rice looks real good.”

The fifth-generation farmer grew 600 acres of the M206 variety this year.

“I never thought we’d make it this far with the crop. I still have a long way to go.”

Rice quality, Mathews noted later, ranged from average to above-average range.

About 20 good weather days are needed to bring in Mathews’ crop. Custom harvest work on another 600 acres stretches his total harvest period to 35 to 40 days.

Despite the late growing season, Mathews kicked off the harvest a little earlier than he would like, due to inherent rains that usually fall in October and November. The average October rainfall in the area is 3 to 4 inches.

The crop moisture level on early harvested grain was higher than Mathews’ preference of 20 percent to 22 percent.

“Harvesting rice with higher moisture increases costs due to the additional energy needed to dry down the rice,” Mathews said. “It’s sunny outside today so the crop moisture will drop, and I can get more productive days to bring in the rice. It’s a trade-off.”

Mathews farms 600 acres of rented rice ground. He usually kicks off field preparation in mid-March, but the weather abnormalities this spring delayed field work to early May. Many of California’s 2,500 rice farmers struggled to get the crop back on schedule due to cool temperatures and wet fields.

Most California rice is seeded by airplane into fields with 5-inch deep water.

Shotgun planting

“It was the latest crop we ever planted,” Mathews said. “It was a very rushed approach; we call it shotgun planting,” Mathews said while eyeing his idled combine awaiting a mechanic’s attention.

“Shotgunning means you go as fast as you can and don’t try to perfect anything or clean things up. We had to get the water started and the seed planted between the rain storms.”

The rushed approach left perfecting land leveling for next year and cancelled extra field chiseling and disking. The plus side of this was reduced production costs.

“The fields had big clods and muddy spots since the soil didn’t get a chance to dry out completely,” Mathews said. “It was like spreading peanut butter.”

Mathews estimates his consumptive water use this growing season at 3.5 acre feet/acre; with water coming from the Yuba River.

For the first time, Mathews treated for sheath spot and stem rot; common problems in a hot, humid summer.

“I treated as a precaution and I’m glad I did,” he said. “There were many reports of diseases this year in rice fields overall due to the humidity. It didn’t have much of an impact on my crop.”

Pest pressure was also low in Mathews’ fields, including few rice water weevils which are common in California rice. The weevil attacks young plants, lays eggs, and the larvae eat the roots. This year, ducks, geese, and blackbirds were Mathews’ largest ‘pest’ challenge.

The herbicides Cerano and Granite provided good weed control.

Mathews said rice prices early in the season were good, but below the highest price of about $1,000 per ton FOB milled in 2008.

Strange production year

This strange production year, says Mathews, illustrates the resiliency of high quality rice varieties currently available to growers.

“The varieties were developed over time to withstand weather challenges and provide good emergence and vigor,” Mathews said. “Even the yields don’t fluctuate much with difficult weather.”

Frank Rehermann, FJR Farms, gazed with a satisfied smile as he peered through his pick-up’s windshield as he watched his combine clip his first fields of rice in Nelson in Butte County.

“It’s the best looking crop that I’ve ever had from one end of my operation to the other,” said Rehermann, 64. “I’ve never had a better stand of rice. I’ve never had better weed control.”

Rehermann is a first-generation rice farmer who entered the rice business following his Navy service in 1971. Rehermann’s father-in-law helped pave the way into rice.

Rehermann grew 720 acres of rice this year on rented ground. While he is pleased with the outcome of the crop thus far, the spring weather added frustration.

“This last May was the coldest and wettest May on record,” Rehermann said. “It was enough to exhaust one’s patience. Cold weather is not conducive to growing rice.”

Generating a rice stand took Rehermann a month to achieve, versus a more typical two-to-three week period. But Rehermann is all smiles. Early yields in fields planted with the M206 variety generated 9,000 pounds/acre, about 1,000 pounds less than his all-time record crop of about 10,000 pounds/acre last year.

Rehermann had few instances of sheath blight due in part to the aerial application of the fungicide Quadris. The amount of rice blanks (without full-sized kernels) fell in the normal 5 percent to 6 percent range.

Rehermann’s water use averaged 3.5 to 3.6 acre feet/acre — water delivered by the Western Canal Water District from the Oroville Dam afterbay.

Rehermann’s ground work in the spring includes tilling 2 to 5 inches of dry dirt on the soil surface. The ground is smoothed followed by a preplant fertilizer.

Water is added to cover the ground. Seed soaked in water for 36 hours is flown over the field at a rate of 150 to 200 pounds per acre. Soaked seed settles to the soil surface rather than floating on the water.

About 90 percent of California rice acreage is seeded by plane. The balance is dry seeded.

Water decisions

“I prefer to seed where there is just enough water to cover the ground,” Rehermann said. “Too much water at seeding can cause the seed to bunch especially in the wind.”

At seeding time this spring, wind speeds on Rehermann’s operation topped about 25 miles per hour. Under the high winds, the 1-inch deep water was calm. Water at a 1.5 inch depth had whitecaps leading to seed bunching.

“I prefer to keep the water level relatively shallow until the seed sprouts and then raise the level up slowly,” Rehermann said.

The water level is then maintained through irrigation for about 30 days. A herbicide is applied at 40 to 45 days after planting if not applied at preplant. Fertilizer levels are maintained to produce the crop. The fields are usually drained 110 to 115 days after seeding, depending on the soil type and whether the field is level or has a slope.

“The decision when to pull the water is the toughest decision to make over the course of the crop year,” Rehermann said. “Factors to consider include the soil type and weather predictions. No one wants to pull the water too late and harvest the crop in the mud.”

Rehermann is a leader in the California rice industry, serving as the California Rice Commission’s (CRC) treasurer and as chair of the California Rice Industry Association. He served as the CRC’s chair from 2005-2007.

“We have a good rice industry,” Rehermann said. “We produce a product which through CRC activities have gained a brand for the Calrose we produce. Buyers want the rice quality that California growers produce.”

California is the nation’s second largest rice producer behind Arkansas.

The largest challenge for the financial viability of California rice growers is controlling production costs.

“I try to be as cost effective as I can be to hold down the production costs on my operation,” Rehermann said. “Increasing production costs is the biggest single threat we have to remain in the rice business.”

cblake@farmpress.com