Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Cultivating California Rice

⋅ BY CASSIDY NEMEC ⋅
EDITOR

John Cecil is a fourth-generation rice grower in Willows, California. His great grandfather bought some land there back in the 1800s. He began to take over the operation located in the Glenn-Colusa irrigation district in 1983 after he attended college at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California.

The Operation and Recent Years

Cecil’s mother Shirley is 93 years old and helped out during the 2023 harvest.

Cecil has rented and purchased land over the years and now grows three different varieties of medium grain rice on his 2,000-acre-plus rice operation: M-105, M-210, and M-211. They fly on all their seed and typically keep all the ground in rice acreage. He said he likes to get his first field planted by April 15 but that weather can change that date from year to year.

“It floods up here and our ground is really heavy, so it makes good rice,” Cecil said.

He has four full-time employees, along with some seasonal spring and fall labor when they are busy.

Cecil said that he learned from those before him to practice good stewardship and to not bring himself into debt. “My dad taught me to be smart about investing your money and not overextend yourself.”

In 2022, California faced a large drop in rice acreage due to a significant drought and water delivery curtailments. Cecil noted the impact it had in his area of the state and that he was fortunate to be able to keep all his labor during this challenging time.

“It was devastating. It was really hard on our local community and our day-to-day operations,” he said. “It was tough waking up every morning and driving fields; the only good part about that year was the lack of mosquitoes.”

He said he didn’t plant any rice that year due to the irrigation district not having water to supply. On the flipside, he planted later in 2023 than normal due to cool and wet conditions. “No one complained because all the reservoirs were full,” he said.

According to Cecil, more resistant weeds — resistant rough-seeded bullrush and more — are coming along that will keep them working on their herbicide program. As far as insects and disease go, they put Quadris on as a preventive for blast. He said that a humid year may promote the blast, but they can also get through years without seeing it at all.

Improving Efficiencies, Staying Involved

Cecil said he has seen much change in technology over the past couple decades. “Equipment is getting bigger and having more horsepower, and the harvesters are getting larger headers put on them,” he said. “When I first started farming, we had a 16-foot header; now we have a 30-foot header.”

Cecil said he has seen much change in technology over the past couple decades. “Equipment is getting bigger and having more horsepower, and the harvesters are getting larger headers put on them,” he said. “When I first started farming, we had a 16-foot header; now we have a 30-foot header.”

In 2002, he had a game-changing year and bought his first auto-steer tractor. “After that, I wouldn’t own a tractor without autosteer,” he said.

They also have lasers to help level the ground and go off satellite for their equipment.

30 days is usually about the time it takes for Cecil to harvest his crop. He said that he does not burn his rice straw anymore so always hopes to make good habitat for ducks and geese to come in and smash the straw in the ground after harvest. Some storage is located on the farm, and the rest of the rice goes to commercial warehouses before going to Woodland, California, to get milled.

He said he gets a lot of his information on what he wants to do on his operation from talking to other farmers, reading articles, and staying on top of current rice research and variety information.

Cecil said it is getting more difficult to farm with the increased rules and regulations but that he did buy a new ranch recently and is not planning to retire just yet.

Among his involvements, Cecil serves on the California Rice Commission, is president of their rice company where they market rice and is president of his rice pest abatement district. “It’s helped tremendously just to work with other farmers and learn what is going on in the industry,” he said.

Cecil said he has traveled to Mississippi and Arkansas rice operations, and even Germany to see an equipment factory. “It’s grown in a completely different way from here — they rotate their ground, usually drill it, and they have a different fertilizer program.”

He said he enjoys watching the rice crop evolve throughout the season. “The most rewarding part is when the rice first comes out of the water,” Cecil said. “Getting to see it right when it first comes out of the water is the most rewarding part for me.”

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