Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A California Legacy and Collaboration

Working as a Team to Find Ways to Improve

⋅ BY CASSIDY NEMEC ⋅
Editor

Brian McKenzie (left) and Drew Mullaney have worked together since 2016 on McKenzie’s rice operation. Together, they find what works best management-wise year-to-year based on the challenges and opportunities at hand.

Brian McKenzie is a fourth-generation rice grower and California native. While he at first had his sights set on a corporate occupation, he is now sitting around the 20-year mark for growing rice and has not regretted that choice.

“I had some really good people I worked for out of college who were not in agriculture, and I learned a lot from them, but the farm life — where you’re more in control of your own successes and failures — seemed like a no brainer. At 18, I didn’t want to do it; at 22, there was no place I’d rather be.”

Some History and the Operation

McKenzie said his great grandfather began growing rice in the 1950s, and his grandfather and father followed suit before he continued the tradition. Kent McKenzie, McKenzie’s uncle, served at the California Rice Experiment Station for 32 years before his retirement.

When McKenzie began growing rice, they had around 1,500 acres. That has expanded considerably into four counties — Sutter, Sacramento, Placer, and Yolo — with the support of great landowners all near Sacramento, California.

“The whole rice market has been fairly strong throughout that time,” McKenzie said.

His dad Chris is still involved as well as his partner Brian Barrett, a 2012 Rice Leadership Development Program graduate. They have 10 employees to help across those four counties.

“Sutter County is where we will start,” McKenzie said. “If you try to start at one place and march through your fields, you could potentially need to keep restarting. When you’re working everything at the same time regionally, you have a better chance of not needing to rework those fields or having a higher number of acres being planted than having to be reworked.”

When McKenzie began growing rice, they had around 1,500 acres. That has more than doubled and now consists of just under 4,000 acres of rice in four counties — Sutter, Sacramento, Placer, and Yolo — all near Sacramento, California.

McKenzie noted that rice, while not as labor-intensive as some other crops, can be a complex crop. “There’s a lot of moving parts on a rice operation. You need a lot of employees — there’s a lot of equipment, a lot of upkeep, a lot of maintenance — and it can be difficult to find those employees. You want to keep good people around as long as you can.”

Calrose varieties M-105, M-206, and M-211, as well as Calaroma 201, are all grown as paddy rice for consumption and as seed production.

“Our soils are all different, but what makes them all suitable for rice production is the fact that they have a lot of clay and hold water really well.,” he said.

As far as technology goes, McKenzie said they run auto-steer on all their tractors. “This lessens our time in the fields as it’s more precise in your spacing and passes.”

In addition, they run yield monitors in all of their harvesters, use GPS for leveling, and make use of variable rate on spraying and fertilizer applications.

He said challenges fluctuate from year to year, but supply and demand impacting prices always seems to take the biggest precedence. “It starts at the beginning of the year with anhydrous prices and natural gas prices. Everything was obviously really high in 2022, so it was nice that it came down a bit in 2023.”

McKenzie noted that rice, while not as labor-intensive as some other crops, can be a complex crop. “There’s a lot of moving parts on a rice operation. You need a lot of employees — there’s a lot of equipment, a lot of upkeep, a lot of maintenance — and it can be difficult to find those employees. You want to keep good people around as long as you can.”

Urban sprawl is an another area of concern for their operation.

“We have a lot of urban pressure around here,” McKenzie said. “We’ve lost a lot of farm ground. There’s just pressure from West Roseville and Sacramento coming this way.”

In addition to these challenges, McKenzie said they also face water rights being challenged, off-and-on drought issues, and the continued disconnect people have from their food.

Despite all the difficult demands of the job, McKenzie sees the bright side.

“Someone once told me, ‘Good price — grow a good crop. Bad price — grow a good crop.’ Because that’s all you can do,” he said. “To me, the most rewarding thing is when you’re harvesting and you see all the work you’ve done hopefully equate to a good yield because I can’t control the price.”

The Grow West Connection

Drew Mullaney, a pest control advisor at Grow West, has worked with the company for a total of 10 years now, five years with them as a retail PCA. Before he was a licensed PCA, he worked on the service side of the Grow West operation that included supplying customers with equipment for fertilizer and chemical applications, coordinating with growers to assist in the delivery of products, and maintaining a wide range of equipment the company has available to its customers.

Grow West, formerly a large group of individual and integrated companies, is an independently owned and operated agribusiness organization composed of agronomic, financial, and retail services along with a variety of other offerings.

Mullaney’s grower territory expands from Marysville, California, to south Davis, California. He said what he sees on McKenzie’s ranch can vary from year to year.

“Early in the growing season, the almost-inevitable North winds during planting make establishing a stand in a water-seeded environment very challenging. From the day the water meets the seed bed, the biggest hurdle we face is the wide range of evolving weed species. Both grasses and broadleaf infestations pose a threat to the yields and quality of our product. Not only are the pre and postemergent herbicides expensive, but we have a limited amount of chemistries avaliable to the California rice market.”

Mullaney said they do not have many new chemistries on the horizon.

“The most effective tool we have is precise water management,” he said. “Irrigation is often overlooked, but it is everything in my opinion. Alongside of the weather conditions God hands us early on, we are keeping a close watch on damage caused by rice water weevil, tadpole shrimp, and rice seed midge. If we see an issue, we will treat for these pests.”

“Everybody farms different types of soils,” McKenzie said. “Here we have very light to very heavy soils. The weeds that come with those are different and their timings are different, so that can create a problem for Drew looking at everything out here.”

He said that encroachment has changed the way they are able to do things. “Applying chemical and fertilizer by air has always been the most effective and preferred method to apply products into a flooded environment like a rice field. However, it seems we are continually losing air zones due to urban sprawl and increased buffer zones to sensitive crops. Aerial applications are a critical piece of the entire rice puzzle.”

Mullaney said he most enjoys seeing his customers succeed and be profitable in their operation.

Sustainability as a Two-Way Street

“In California, we hear sustainability as, ‘Oh, this isn’t good for the environment,’ but sustainability has to work for the farmer, too,” McKenzie said.

He then discussed the sustainability measures they do employ on their operation.

“The water bird program is something we participate in. After the crop is harvested, we chop the remaining rice straw and disc the fields to incorporate the remaining organic matter. Once this is finished, we reintroduce a flood water back across the fields, which provides a desirable habitat and food source for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.”

On the farm, they level every acre of every field to conserve water and precisely irrigate their fields. “It’s tough to quantify, but just imagine an inch of water over 10 acres — or 4,000 acres — that’s a lot of water,” McKenzie said.

He said they can level and relevel these fields at a rate of about eight acres per hour.

“The initial cost of GPS is a big investment, but the accuracy it provides is worth the capital.”

“There are so many factors that go into a bumper crop yield — from the groundwork, to the herbicide program, to the water, to the timings — so many little things that you take for granted sometimes, and the one thing the farmer can’t control is the weather. This is just as crucial of a factor as any,” McKenzie said.

Mullaney said they do periodic soil sampling on the farm as well. “We do our best each year to make sure we are replacing the macro and micro nutrients the previous crop mined out of the soil.”

Industry Involvement and Hopeful Mindsets

McKenzie participated in the 2018-2020 USA Rice Leadership Development Program Class and is on multiple USA Rice committees. He is also on the Rice Research Board and California Rice Commission. He said the leadership program gave him a better understanding of what others in different rice-producing states are going through and how they all fit together.

“The economics [in those other states] can look substantially different than ours. Practices such as maintaining water on the field nearly all year could negatively impact others in areas like Texas where water is very expensive,” he said.

In addition to these, McKenzie also grows and sells seed rice to around 30,000 acres-worth of California rice growers.

ROXY rice is of great interest to McKenzie and Mullaney.

“Having this chemistry as a tool and something for rotation herbicide-wise, even if it’s not for the whole California crop, would be great,” McKenzie said.

He also said they tried some dry-seeded rice and are looking forward to seeing what they can improve with that in future years.

Mullaney said he appreciates the general comaraderie the agricultural industry shares and how nice it is to be able to work outdoors for a living. “Without guys like Brian, our business doesn’t exist. The farmer’s success is our success.”

McKenzie said he most enjoys getting to see the different stages of sunrises throughout the season, especially once the water hits the field. He said he would like to continue to be rewarded with good pricing and a good future.

“In the long run, I’d like farming to be a viable and profitable option for my son if he chose to pursue it.”

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