Snow Goose Farms not only sustains its rice growing operations for generations of the Denn family, but sustains the enviroment for generations of wildlife on the northern edge of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.
Waiting while a combine is repaired so they can begin rice harvest, from left, Mark Denn, Sandy Denn and Wally Denn, enjoy a conversation under a clear, Sacramento Valley sky.
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.”