2009 was a good year for California rice growers Frank Rehermann and Charley Mathews, Jr.

“My crop this year had exceptional yields and quality,” said Rehermann, FJR Farms, Live Oak. “I will average 9,300 to 9,400 hundredweight (100-pound sacks) per acre on average. That’s a heck of a crop. Early (planted) fields yielded the highest. These will be my highest yields ever.”

This year marked Rehermann’s 37th year as a rice grower. The fourth-generation farmer grew 820-acres of generic medium-grain rice in Sutter and Butte counties in the Sacramento Valley.

Rehermann planted the M206 variety which matures in 135–137 days, plus the M205 variety which matures four to five days later. He said summer temperatures were a bit cool, but evidently provided adequate heat to produce the bin-buster crop.

Rehermann markets his rice through the Associated Rice Marketing Cooperative, Durham, Calif.

About 3.5 acre-feet of water per acre from four water districts is utilized to meet Rehermann’s rice crop requirements. About 95 percent is surface water; well water fills any shortage.

“I have enough decomp-habitat (surface) water for the winter months,” Rehermann said. “Like other growers I am concerned about irrigation supplies for next season. Hopefully the reservoirs will refill this winter like they normally do. We’re coming off three dry years so the jury is still out.”

Rehermann grows rice in heavy, adobe-type, clay soils that drain well.

Will the 2009 season be financially profitable for Rehermann?

“I don’t know what the returns will be for the crop that I forward contracted,” Rehermann said. “I think I’ll have a black number at the end of the year. I don’t think we’ll see the (good) pricing levels from 2008.”

Rehermann serves as vice-chairman of the U.S. Rice Federation.

Charley Mathews, Marysville, averaged in the mid 80-sack/acre yield range this year on his 500 acres in Yuba County.

Mathews and Rehermann farm in the Sacramento Valley where more than 90 percent of the California rice crop is grown.

Most rice is water seeded by airplane. About 95 percent of California rice grows in 5 inches of water. Water-filled rice fields create a $1 billion habitat for more than 220 species of wildlife. California ranks second in U.S. rice production behind Arkansas.

“We had ideal weather conditions this summer,” Mathews said. “My rice quality was very high. This was the year with perfect weather and very high-quality rice.”

Mathews credits newer rice varieties for the high quality and yields including M206. The four-year-old very to early maturing, semi-dwarf, glabrous, Calrose quality medium-grain rice was developed by the California Cooperative Rice Research Foundation at the California Rice Experiment Station near Biggs, Calif.

“M206 has delivered consistent yields and very high-quality,” said Mathews, a fifth-generation farmer. He sells his rice to the 65-year-old, Sacramento-based Farmer’s Rice Cooperative.

Mathew’s “good rice soils” are hard pan red dirt with a low pH. His farm includes acreage that has been in continuous rice production for 75 years.

Mathews promotes the California rice industry in a California Rice Commission (CAC)-sponsored video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkcLucE4wFg. He touts the Sacramento Valley’s dry Mediterranean climate for its vital role in producing great-flavored rice.

Another benefit of the area’s dry climate is reduced pest pressure. Mathews found few weevils and yellow-striped armyworms in fields this year.

Mathews’ major water source is the Yuba River. Despite water shortages in central and southern California, Mathews received a full water allocation this year. He uses 3.5 to 4 acre-feet of water to grow rice.

“Farming is very close to gambling,” Mathews explained. “We try to manage our risks and make decisions based on our best projections and forecasts. Water is a big factor now.”

Heavy rain in mid-October slowed the rice harvest for Mathews and other growers which muddied fields. Delays slowed the combines and increased harvest costs.

Cass Mutters, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) farm advisor, Butte County, says good yields and milling returns are common this fall.

“Yields will be down slightly compared to the 2008 crop, but it’s still a very profitable year,” Mutters said. “I don’t know the state average yields yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were slightly higher than our recent historical average of about 82 hundredweight (sacks).”

Mutters saw a “sprinkling” of rice blast this season, a fungal disease which can attack plants throughout the life cycle resulting in dead tissue and reduced yields. Inoculum levels can increase quickly under prolonged dew or rainy conditions combined with warm temperatures.

The fungicide Quadris provides good control, Mutters says. Some rice growers in areas where blast tends to reoccur plant the more blast resistant M208 variety.

Mutters saw signs of late-season potassium deficiency. “Some rice farmers never or seldom add potassium to the soil due to its high, naturally-occurring potassium content,” Mutters noted. “I think what we’re seeing over time is the farms adding little to no potassium over the years are starting to show the need late in the season.”

Farmers who bale (rice) straw for secondary markets need to be watchful of potassium deficiency since the straw removed from fields contains the nutrient, Mutters said.

Mutters saw an increase in the weed mannagrass in fields. The red rice weed, first found in Glenn and Colusa counties several years ago, does not appear to be spreading; in part due to UCCE and grower efforts to develop eradication management strategies.

“Red rice is particularly problematic because it’s technically rice,” Mutters said. “Any applied herbicide also kills the rice. This is a major problem in the Southeast, but not in California.”

Mutters says early 2009 rice prices hovered around $15 over loan. Last year’s prices were about $18 to $19 over loan.

“$15 over loan is a very strong price for California rice,” Mutters said. “Everyone is hoping the price holds. The wild card for rice is Southeastern U.S. rice growers who are now planting more medium grain than in the past. It is yet to be seen how this could change the market dynamics for medium grain rice prices.”

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Services (NASS) in November predicted 2009 California rice production at 46.7 million, 8 percent above last year. The yield forecast is 8,500 pounds per acre. NASS estimated harvested acreage at 549,000 acres.

All California rice is the japonica type, moist sticky rice that grows well in temperate and mountainous regions, according to the CAC’s Jim Morris. About 95 percent of California rice is medium grain, while the balance is mostly short grain. Less than 1 percent is long grain, which is more dominant in the Southern U.S.

California rice is typically planted from April 15 to May 30, and harvest generally runs from mid-September to late October.

email: cblake@farmpress.com