California Rice: Crop Goes From Slow Start to Swift Finish

Rice harvest. Photo: Jim Morris, California Rice Commission

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

That familiar creed is usually associated with the U.S. Postal Service but could just as easily apply to California rice farmers this year as they faced a myriad of challenges, most from weather, at each stage of the 2019 crop.

“The story of this year’s harvest goes back to the spring, as all harvests usually do,” said Matthew Sligar, a farmer from Gridley. “We like to start groundwork in early April but got a delayed start because of rains in mid-April. More rains in mid-May pushed planting back; some people out here planted mid-June, which is generally unheard of.”

The late start on planting was exacerbated by spring temperatures that were well below normal. “In addition to field prep that was rushed, the lower temperatures slowed down young rice trying to establish itself in the field,” said farmer Kurt Richter, from Colusa. “The cooler temperatures persisted throughout the summer along with higher humidity that caused more disease issues than we typically see.”

As summer turned to fall, the weather became more cooperative, and according to Seth Fiack, who farms in Glenn, “while we didn’t have a lot of hot weather during the growing season, harvest time brought north winds to dry down the rice. That means no heavy dews and that means our quality is probably going to be pretty good this year.”

Those north winds proved both a blessing and a curse.

On the positive side, Richter said, “the north winds helped ripen the rice ahead of schedule, setting us up to finish earlier than expected.”

But the flip side of the accelerated schedule was all that harvested rice was backing up at the dryers. Sligar said, “Normally, you’re cutting-cutting-cutting, and then you have to stop because you come across a field that isn’t ripe enough, and that gives the dryers some breathing room to process the rice. But this year’s winds were extremely high, drying all the rice out at the same time, and speeding up harvest.”

The back up at the dryers had a ripple effect – the loads of harvested rice were coming in dramatically faster than they could dry rice and move it out to storage warehouses. And then came the power outages.

PG&E, or Pacific Gas & Electric, provides gas and electricity to the northern part of California, including rice growing regions. The high winds that were helping out rice harvest are also creating a fire hazard here in the dry foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, so as a preventative measure, PG&E initiated power shutoffs in at-risk areas. (In February, PG&E admitted that its equipment had probably ignited the Camp Fire that so devastated the region last year.)

It takes a while for a rice dryer to recover from a power surge much less a complete outage. At Red Top Rice Growers in Biggs, a surge left them without power for only two minutes but it locked up the augers transporting rice. Augers can’t be restarted when they’re full of rice as it would blow the motors up so they had to be completely cleaned before rice started moving again.

Despite all the adversity, most farmers are cautiously optimistic about this year’s yields. “In California, we call a hundredweight a sack,” said Fiack. “The early stuff seems to be doing really well, but in general, the later plantings seems to be off by about five sacks an acre so I think the state average is probably going to be around 82 or 83 sacks per acre, or 8,300 pounds to the acre.”

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