Most of California’s rice production is in the Sacramento Valley, north of Sacramento, the state capital. While much of the 2020 crop was planted earlier than normal because an unusually dry spring allowed earlier field preparation, smoke associated with wildfires in the region appears to be slowing development as much of the crop approaches harvest maturity.
Bruce Linquist, with the University of California Davis, said that smoke, and thus lower temperatures, are delaying grain drying and harvest.
“We started harvesting short grain before Labor Day and have been moving along steadily,” said Nicole Van Vleck, with Montna Farms near Yuba City. “Although we have had relatively high temperatures, the two weeks of smoke have blocked the sunshine and as a result the fields have not dried out as much as we normally would see. Our yields and quality look really good.”
Tom Butler, near Robbins, started harvesting this past weekend. “Everybody is expecting high yields due to a warm spring and so far, we are seeing that. The smoke may have delayed some crop maturity, but we are still much earlier than the past few years. There’s going to be a lot of demand for new crop early, as there isn’t much carry over from 2019, so, for now, people are pretty bullish on price.”
Seth Fiack who farms near Glenn, expects to begin harvest next week. He notes a large amount of variable heading this year which led to him holding water longer then he normally does to encourage the secondary and late heads to have enough moisture to mature. This, combined with the smoke-covered valley and lower than average day-time temperatures, have led to his harvest start being pushed back almost 15 days.
Leo LaGrande has a diverse operation near Williams that has experienced continuous smoke on the westside of the valley for more than 28 days. “Some days the visibility was less than a mile,” said LaGrande.
“The rice appears to be ripening on time. Until this past week, we had extreme hot weather layered with smoke, and nighttime temperatures in the 70s. We started harvesting short grain this past week, with yields and quality at average to above average. According to our planting dates the medium grain appears to be on time, and we will start cutting these fields by the end of the week. Fields will be difficult to get dried out this year and parking trucks in the fields might not happen.”
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“Smoke from the wildfires has limited hours of sunlight in our region near Sacramento,” said rice farmer Brian McKenzie. “In the past three weeks, we’ve had only a handful of clear views of the sun. It is extremely humid, and the valley is still under a blanket of smoke. I estimate our fields have probably had a few hundred pounds of ash per acre deposited from the wildfires which may have an interesting effect.”
“I saw the sun on Monday for the first time in quite a while and the smoke is slowly going away,” said Charley Mathews, Jr., who farms near Marysville. “It looks to be a decent crop, but, like most people, I will be glad when harvest is complete and 2020 is over.”
Christopher Cota said his family operation is about two weeks away from commencing harvest, while Greg Van Dyke noted that his mochi/sweet fields have done well despite smoky conditions.
“The timing of harvest has been delayed due to the smoke insulation as the ground has not dried out, so the rice is ready, but the ground is not,” said Don Traynham, with Sun Valley near Arbuckle. “We have had some Calrose fields harvested, and the yields are average to above average. California experienced a similar situation a few years ago, though not this extreme, where smoke insulation kept the high and low temperatures very minimal which enhanced quality.”
Bert Manuel, from Yuba City, said not a lot of rice is being cut in his area, and there is a great deal of green rice around. “My rice has gone from being ahead of schedule to being behind, and the jury is still out on yields for this year’s crop as smoke continues to affect later planted rice.” Manuel noted the lack of sunlight delays the beginning of harvest each day as it takes longer for surface moisture to evaporate.
“Mild lodging already exists where I farm in Butte County and with a significant wind or any amount of rain, we could have some rough harvest conditions show up,” said Josh Sheppard. “Our co-op drying facility in Richvale has the capacity to receive 350 truckloads a day and only took in 39 on Monday. I expect things will start to pick up next week as growers become anxious and frustrated with waiting for harvest.”
Dr. Kent McKenzie, director of the California Rice Experiment Station near Biggs, said, “No plots have been cut either on the experiment station or by the UC-Davis Statewide Variety Testing Program. RES Foundation seed from small fields of specialty varieties are being cut.” McKenzie also agreed that the lack of sunlight has been delaying initiation of harvest each day.
A true assessment of the 2020 crop will have to wait until harvest is complete. In the meantime, California rice farmers are cautiously optimistic as the start of the harvest season has been somewhat promising. As the smoke dissipates in the valley, harvest conditions should improve along with the collective frame of mind.