California’s unique rice harvest opportunity

It’s nearly rice harvest for California. Matured rice stalks will cue the draining of paddies and entrance of state-of-the-art combines to collect ripe grain. But this harvest will be different. In the Sacramento Valley, where 95% of California’s rice is grown, growers expect only 250,000 acres of crop this year, instead of the typical 500,000 acres. 

The last time rice growers produced this amount was in 1956. Although this shortage will be felt worldwide, it will also mean global demand for innovation and an opportunity for determined businesses to develop new practices. US rice growers have spent the last 37 years reducing their use of land by 39%, water by 52%, and energy by 34%. Despite the sustainable and regenerative practices adopted by California growers, this harvest will reveal and inspire practices to do even more with less. 

How California Grows Rice

California growers are known to consistently prioritize the preservation of land and wildlife. Rice plants grow rapidly, to a height of three to four feet over an average of 120 days, which creates opportunities for planet-friendly practices. Flooding the paddies prevents soil erosion and creates wildlife habitats for fish and waterfowl. This process supports wildlife by providing nutrients, like zooplankton, to fish populations in the Sacramento Valley area. 

Next, the paddy is carefully leveled with precision grading equipment to conserve water. The paddy will be flooded with just 5” of water for seeding. Rice plants grown with a consistent water depth are better at staving off weeds, giving the crop more nutrients and sunlight, and reducing the need for herbicides. 

Soaked rice seed is then loaded onto airplanes and planted from the air. The heavy seeds sink into the shallow furrows and begin to grow. By late summer, the grain will appear at the top of the plant. By September, the grain heads will mature and be ready for harvest. Harvesters are designed with quality in mind, gently yet rapidly bringing the grain in. Harvested grain is taken to drying facilities, where they gradually reduce the moisture content to prepare the grain for appropriate storage, prior to milling.

After harvest, farmers will once again put a shallow flood on their rice paddies. Local fowl use the paddies as a habitat which increases soil nutrients and straw decomposition and reduces weed and insect pressure. 

Effects of the 2022 Crop

California is in its third consecutive drought year causing some irrigation districts to not plant rice. Sacramento Valley communities will be remarkably hit, particularly by the lack of rice industry jobs. This spring, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that no water will be delivered to agricultural water contractors, north and south of the Sacramento Delta. The agency will only supply water to meet health and safety needs. 

The drought, along with labor shortages and rising energy costs, has led to historically high rice prices impacting consumers across the globe. California may lose market share in many of its key export and domestic markets. It is not clear how rice mills will approach their two main export markets – Japan and South Korea. These markets take hundreds of thousands of tons of California rice each year under World Trade Organization obligations, accounting for roughly a third of the California crop consumption in a normal year. 

An Opportunity to Evolve

Sun Valley Rice of Arbuckle, California is navigating supply chain difficulties and environmental pressures via transparency, vertical integration, and an appetite to innovate. Founded by fifth-generation farmers, their approach stems from a deep understanding that great progress comes from great challenges. 

Sun Valley Rice’s founders, the LaGrande family, put intention behind every decision they make. All of their growers are located within 100 miles of their mill. The mill itself was constructed with industry-leading technology that facilitates smooth operation. Open communication with key stakeholders, alongside monthly resource and update sharing, allows Sun Valley Rice to remain solution-oriented. This agility and customization offers their partners increased visibility and control. 

While no California rice business will be unscathed by the effects of the 2022 harvest year, Sun Valley Rice leans into the legacy of perseverance that has driven five generations of LaGrandes to grow in the Sacramento Valley and they look forward to the discoveries that will propel them forward.