Rice Leadership Development Session III: California At Last!

Group of men stand in mature rice field, harvesting equipment in background
Hands-on learning in a California rice field
Oct 20, 2021
Author Bobby R. Golden earned degrees in agribusiness and soil science from the University of Arkansas and, after conducting research at Louisiana State University and Mississippi State University, now manages the Technical Services and Product Development team for Innvictis Brands, east of the Rocky Mountains.

SACRAMENTO, CA -- Session III for the 2019 Rice Leadership Development Program Class was long overdue as we are the first class that will complete the four-session cycle in over three calendar years as a result of travel restrictions due to COVID-19.  Session III was all about California agriculture and the hurdles the industry here faces every day just to stay in business and continue to have the freedom to operate.

Our week started with a trip to Hog Island Oyster Company to get a glimpse into a California aquaculture farm.  In the upper mid-south when people hear the word “aquaculture” they think of fully-contained catfish farms, so it was a pleasant surprise to visit an aquaculture farm in a natural estuary and learn of all the issues facing an oyster farm in a natural setting.  Producer Terry Sawyer was a joy to listen to with his passion for non-terrestrial farming.  His oyster product is of superb quality and listening to the painstaking process to maintain and achieve that quality it's not for the faint of heart.  The trip to Hog Island brought into perspective the issues California agrarians face with regulation, and this would be a consistent theme throughout this session.

On Day Two, we travelled through what most people think of when they think about California agriculture, wine country.  It’s hard to explain the amount of land devoted to viticulture in the area without seeing it with your own eyes and hearing about wine making and what each vintner tries to accomplish with harvest timing and blending.  I was especially surprised to learn that even within a grape variety, the elevation at which it grows influences the taste, texture, and final product quality.  The capstone of the day was a great steak dinner with Tom Butler, the first rice producer we met in California, who talked about how the pandemic had influenced the California rice industry and life in northern California in general.
The focus on California rice and what makes it unique was on full display with visits to the Farmers Rice Co-op and the California Rice Commission (CRC).  A full day in Sacramento, within a stone’s throw from the capital, really set the tone for how important industry relations and the governmental affairs process are to California rice.  The work CRC does daily to tell a positive story about the benefits of California rice to the environment and wildlife communities is second to none.  We heard about all the work that goes into keeping active ingredients available to California producers while staying within California EPA and DPR regulations.  The programs CRC has put in place to maintain and/or generate new funding for conservation efforts was impressive.  We saw how those programs are working for producers during our visit to Montna Farms where we had a firsthand view of winter flooding in their rice fields that draws an abundance of wildfowl through the Pacific Flyway and how new strategies to increase fish health are being researched.

The concept of surface water as a primary source, with groundwater being secondary is opposite from what I have experienced in the mid-south.  The emphasis placed on surface water and its importance was the primary focus in my opinion of the trip.  From first glance at the overflow basin structure to the Colusa pumping facility, the challenges California faces today and those that will be faced in the future with delivering irrigation water and maintaining fish health are tremendous, but at every turn we took, plans were in place to maintain this precious resource.  The highlight of the water system visits was the aerial views of the whole system originating from Oroville and Lake Shasta, although even that expansive viewpoint of the conveyance system in place still doesn’t do justice to the intricate song and dance that is required for water delivery to the farm gate.
We toured multiple farms, hosted by Kim Gallagher, Leo LaGrande, and Josh Sheppard, to see their harvest operations and get a small glimpse of how challenging rice farming in California.  The most interesting thing to me was that most of the rice in California is harvested lodged.  We also visited multiple rice mills and the California Rice Experiment station where breeding efforts have been a great success and check-off monies well-spent in producing a super-quality product.  At Biggs, we saw the evolution of rice varieties, over time, placed side by side in the field.  Transferring that quality product out of the field and onto dinner plates is the  responsibility of the mill, and the experience at Sun Valley Rice showed us how there are differences in superior quality rice and gave us a sign of rice markets few from the mid-south have observed.  Their new technology being developed with the brown rice sprouting techniques to increase taste profiles and cooking ease was exciting.

The most intriguing aspect of our trip to California didn’t have to do with rice farming; it was our trip to the salad bowl of America where we met Mike Costa at Costa Farms and saw the dedication and technique it takes to provide fresh leafy greens to U.S. consumers.  The machinery and engineering design to increase efficiency in lettuce harvest was fascinating, as was seeing a robotic weeder in action.  I believe one visit to a harvest operation like Costa Farms would change Americans’ viewpoint on what it takes to deliver high-quality, affordable produce to their grocery shelves.

Throughout this session, our class experienced the utmost in hospitality, with warm welcomes and fine dining at every stop.  The most memorable dining experience, in my opinion, was Don Traynham’s wild game supper that was waterfowl-based.  I would make the trip to California just to experience that meal again!

Many thanks to John Deere and RiceTec, and, especially on this session, to Chris Crutchfield and American Commodity Company for sponsoring the leadership development program that delivers on the promise to provide a comprehensive understanding of the U.S. rice industry.