Monday, October 25, 2021

CA rice growers look for rain but not before harvest ends

• By Ching Lee •

rice harvest near Biggs, California
A combine cuts rice near Biggs, California — photo by Vicky Boyd

Favorable weather conditions and fewer acres of planted rice this year should allow California farmers to remove their crop without worries of autumn rainfall complicating harvest.

All eyes are now on how much precipitation the coming season will bring, which will affect not only farmer prospects for growing rice next year but also their ability to supply key markets.

“Every rice farmer I talk to, it’s all about how much rain are we going to get this winter,” said Yuba County grower Charley Mathews Jr. “We are going to talk about that and worry about that for the next four months.”

Severe drought and abnormally low reservoir levels in Northern California curtailed state rice plantings this year to their lowest level since 1992. Farmers are expected to harvest 405,000 acres, down 21% from 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Production is forecast at 35.6 million hundredweight, which represents the smallest rice crop from the state since 1998, USDA reported.

Medium-grain rice remains the predominant variety grown in the state, with most of it coming from the Sacramento Valley. California produces nearly 70% of the U.S. medium- and short-grain rice.

Last winter’s paltry rainfall and snowpack

Because of water cutbacks, Everett Willey, who farms rice in Sutter County, said he was forced to reduce his plantings by 30% this year. Harvest finished earlier because he had less acreage and more than half of it devoted to a newer short-grain, sweet rice variety that matures faster.

With paltry rainfall and snowpack last winter, Willey said he knew water curtailments were a possibility and planned for it. He used the opportunity to address weed pressure and rebuild soil fertility by fallowing some fields. The hope, he said, is that there will be more rain this winter, so that he will have “fresh ground” on which to plant rice next spring.

“There were fields we wanted to rotate out this season anyway,” he said. “That, in the past, has definitely helped yields.”

Sutter County grower Tom Butler, whose water supply was cut by 25%, said he tried some laser leveling on his land and crop practices “that we might not have had time to do” if he had planted all his acreage. He typically grows 4,100 acres of rice and reduced plantings to 3,000 acres this year.

Prevented-planting insurance will recoup some of his expenses, he said, but it “isn’t as lucrative as growing a crop.” He noted he’s had to claim insurance during five of the past seven seasons, either due to drought or because it was too wet in the spring to plant.

“It’s kind of becoming the new normal, unfortunately,” he said.

Prevented plantings

Prevented rice plantings in the state grew to 102,735 acres this year, compared to 33,000 acres in 2020, according to USDA.

Mathews said concerns about the state’s water outlook could lead growers to make certain decisions such as delaying equipment purchases and other expenditures.

With the loss of income this year from reduced plantings, Butler said farmers will try to keep costs down by minimizing the number of tractors they use and reducing hiring and purchases. That has a ripple effect on the economy of rice-farming communities such as Colusa, Yuba City and other small towns in the Sacramento Valley that depend on growers “actively doing 100% of what they do,” he said.

With expectations of a smaller harvest this year, market prices for California rice have been climbing. Mathews said growers should see good pricing for their crop through the winter. The concern now is that prices could soar to levels that would drive away buyers, growers said.

USDA projected exports of U.S. medium- and short-grain rice will be down 10% from last year, with few sales outside the core U.S. markets of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, where the bulk of California rice exports are shipped. Tighter supplies of California rice are expected to reduce exports to markets in the Middle East and North Africa.

“There is a threshold where they’ll stop buying our rice and turn to a medium grain out of the South,” which is typically lower priced, Butler said.

At the same time, countries such as Australia and China are expected to have increased supplies, which will allow them to boost market share in places to where California now ships rice, USDA reported.

What has helped, Mathews said, is on the import side. With shipping container shortages and historic high freight costs, it’s more expensive to bring in foreign rice. That helps support pricing for U.S. growers, he said. While California rice may lose some business in the Middle East, he said the domestic market remains strong, with “a lot of new consumers of rice,” as people continue to cook at home more due to the pandemic.

Willey said he’s not too worried about market conditions because an average or above-average rain year will allow a lot of this year’s unplanted acres to return next season, bringing supplies back up.

Impacts on winter flooding

A more immediate concern, farmers say, is whether there will be enough water this fall and winter to flood fields, which helps decompose leftover rice straw after harvest and creates needed habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.

California rice farmers normally provide about 270,000 acres of winter-flooded habitat, according to the California Rice Commission. But with water cuts, the commission said it expects growers will be able to provide about 65,000 acres this year.

Some farmers such as Willey have access to groundwater. But considering the higher cost to operate pumps, Willey said, growers may instead choose to do extra tillage to manage straw.

To help farmers create more flooding habitat this fall, $8 million in state funding has been made available to recover their groundwater pumping costs.

Mathews called the Drought Relief Waterbird Program “a great idea,” adding, “Hopefully, that’ll generate some more flooded acres.”

Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com. This article originally appeared in Ag Alert, the weekly newspaper of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

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