Good rice yields and quality plus higher rice prices to offset spiraling input costs have combined to produce an average year for many California rice growers.

“The rice harvest is going pretty well,” said Bill Baggett, a rice grower and owner of William A. Baggett Farming, Marysville, Calif. “Rice quality is good and my yield is averaging more than usual; about 85 sacks (dry weight) per acre compared to 80 sacks.” A sack is a 100-pound equivalent, bringing Baggett’s yields to about 8,500 pounds per acre.

“It’s been a beautiful year,” said Randy Meeker, president of the 400-member Butte County Rice Growers, Richvale, Calif.

“There were no extended high heat periods during the summer,” Meeker said. “Rice quality is good and the yields are really good. The fall weather has been dry without much north wind. Growers are having a relatively good harvest.” Meeker was aware of some early yields in the 94 (dry) sack range.

Rice prices escalated all year for the sales of last year’s crop; selling up to about $17 above loan, Meeker says. “Rice has never achieved that price level before. Some growers who sold earlier in the year received $11 to $14 per sack. Those who waited received about $17 above loan.”

Rice sold for about $7.50 per sack in 2004. Most California-grown rice is sold under contract while the rest is sold for cash.

California is the nation’s second-largest rice producer behind Arkansas. The vast majority of California’s 533,000 rice acreage is located within 100 miles of the Sacramento Valley. Rice is generally planted from late April to early June and harvested from early September through early November.

While Baggett is grateful for higher rice prices this year, the end result hasn’t necessarily generated profit.

“The price is up, but the expenses are too,” Baggett said. “Expenses including fuel and fertilizer are big concerns of mine. I think the rice price is high enough to cover input expenses this year. I hope prices will stay up there.”

Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission, says early season yields were average with good quality reported.

Cass Mutters, rice, winter cereal, and turf farm advisor, University of California (UC) Cooperative Extension, Butte County, says some tests of early-harvested rice showed some reduced head rice yields.

“One possible reason could be the result of high winds with gust near 40 miles per hour during late August,” Mutters said. “I suspect some early maturing plants were affected by the wind during a critical stage of the grain fill making them more susceptible to cracking during the milling process.”

Another concerning issue to the industry is the potential impact of reduced light available to rice plants. A thick layer of smoke over a three-week period from wildfires in the Sacramento Valley shielded some light from rice plants. Mutters says yields really weren’t impacted by light reduction.

Since the high wind and wildfires, Mutters says good weather has prevailed across the Sacramento Valley creating good grain maturation and ripening. “The nights are cool and the days are warm; a good combination for head rice.” Mutters has heard reports of rice yields above 90 sacks per acre.

On water, Mutters says most growers acquired sufficient water to grow this year’s crop despite the state’s drought. Many water districts in rice-growing areas have historic water rights which provide rice farmers with early dibs on water supplies. About 6 to 7 acre feet of water are required to grow rice including evapotranspiration, percolation, and runoff, Mutters says.

A potential cloud on the horizon is whether all rice growers will have adequate water to winter flood rice fields for straw decomposition.

“If growers lack water for decomposition, the option is to chop the straw with a flail mower, come back in with a stubble disc, lay it to rest for the winter, and then hope for enough winter rainfall to create good straw decomposition,” Mutters said.

In 2007, California rice growers produced about 4.38 billion pounds of rice (43,822,000 hundredweight); that’s about 8,220 pounds per acre, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The record crop value totaled about $583 million. Most California-grown rice is medium grain japonica rice.

The top six rice-producing counties include Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba which grow about 94 percent of the state’s production. About 60 percent of California’s rice crop is consumed domestically with the remainder exported, mostly to Japan, according to Morris.

“We have an adequate supply of rice to meet the needs of our domestic and international customers,” Morris said. “Our exports have progressed well including increased sales in the Middle East.”

Meeker calls the demand for California-grown rice excellent in part due to a “worldwide rice shortage.” Drought has reduced Australia’s rice production this year. The USA Rice Federation, which promotes and markets U.S. rice domestically and internationally, says India, Vietnam, and Egypt also reduced or halted rice exports this year.

Disease and pest pressures for California growers were average this year, Mutters says. Some hot spots of the fungal disease aggregate sheath spot were located in isolated areas. Stem rot was also isolated, and like sheath spot no field-wide infestations were found.

Average infestations of the rice water weevil occurred this year. The weevil is the most economically damaging invertebrate pest in California, according to UC Davis. About one-third of all rice acres are usually treated for the weevil. The most common treatment product is Warrior, Mutters says.

With higher prices for rice and other grains including wheat, will rice growers plant rice in 2009 or perhaps switch to another crop? Baggett says rice is about the only crop that will grow on his farm since the ground is an adobe red dirt. Pasture is the only other option for the land.

Mutters says the heavy clay soils with an underlying hard pan make much of the soil rice-only ground. “Rotation is not an economically viable option. In other areas where rotation is an option, I suspect they’ll stay with rice as long as the rice price remains good.”

The 800-pound gorilla next year for California agriculture is water availability and pricing, and hopes remain for a heavy snowpack to reduce California’s serious drought.

“Without a wet winter, there could be major cutbacks on the water supply next year,” Meeker said.

Baggett added, “If it continues to be a drought next year, we could have major problems — so it’s a great concern.” Water cutbacks could cause Baggett to plant fewer rice acres. He’s grown rice for three decades.

Morris says a water reduction in rice areas would not only impact rice farmers, but also the bird habitat created by the rice industry. California rice fields provide habitat, food, and breeding for 235 species of wildlife.

According to the Rice Commission Web site, an estimated 10 to 12 million waterfowl use the Central Valley’s wetland habitats annually, including about 60 percent of all waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway.

email: cblake@farmpress.com