Logistics, water supplies affect California rice planting

• By Ching Lee •

california rice planting
An agricultural aircraft flies rice seed over a field in Maxwell. Ideal weather conditions this season have allowed farmers to prepare their fields early, but a shortage of a liquid fertilizer has slowed their progress — photo by Ching Lee

Ideal planting conditions should have allowed rice farmers throughout the Sacramento Valley plenty of time to prepare and seed their fields this spring, But short supplies of a liquid fertilizer have slowed their progress, leaving some of them scrambling to make last-minute adjustments.

Most rice farmers use aqua-ammonia, a key source of nitrogen for their crop. The liquid fertilizer is typically injected into the soil before the field is flooded for planting. With fertilizer distributors and dealers running low on aqua-ammonia at the height of rice-planting season, farmers say they have had to make some tough decisions on whether to wait for new shipments to arrive or switch to different and oftentimes more-expensive fertilizers that they’re not used to using.

Supplies of aqua-ammonia became tight when a container ship carrying anhydrous ammonia, which goes into making the liquid fertilizer, became stuck in Fertinal, Mexico, due to an outbreak of COVID-19, said Dan Stone, president and CEO of CALAMCO, the state’s primary supplier of anhydrous ammonia.

The Stockton-based cooperative obtains its anhydrous ammonia from Trinidad. The supply was scheduled to arrive at the Port of Stockton in late April. To make the trip up the San Joaquin River, the inbound ship first stops in Mexico to lighten its load and reduce its draft, Stone said. The ship, however, could not unload because the processing plant that was to receive the load was forced to evacuate 3,094 workers to prevent spread of the coronavirus, he added.

CALAMCO’s supplier sent a second ship with product that was to come directly to Stockton late last week, Stone said. From there, the anhydrous ammonia goes to various Northern California facilities to be converted to aqua-ammonia.

Though getting the material to the different plants involves a mere two-hour drive from Stockton, Stone said providing aqua-ammonia to farmers will depend on the timeline of the various dealers and their backlog.

Making compromises

In Colusa County, rice farmer Kurt Richter said he and fellow farmers “have weather on our side this year for the first time in a long time, and that’s really nice.” But because he doesn’t have enough aqua-ammonia for all his fields, Richter said he’s “having to compromise our farming practices” by using granular urea as an alternative, in hope of completing planting by May 25.

“We have to keep things moving or we’re not going to finish on time,” he added, “so I can’t sit around and wait for it to be perfect with the perfect fertilizer.”

Farmers aim to finish planting by June 1, the cutoff date for those with crop insurance who need to seek compensation for prevented planting. Planting after June 1 also runs the risk of pushing harvest into the rainy season, which could wreck yields.

Sutter County farmer Steve Butler said he expected the fertilizer to become widely available again this week, which would still give growers “plenty of time” to finish planting before June. But with most of his planting already completed, Butler said he shifted to urea “in the interest of getting everything planted.” The weather allowed him to plant early this year, he said, noting that his earliest fields—planted on April 18—are doing well.

Dry conditions

Lack of rain this year meant Butler received just 75% of his water supply for farming, forcing him to fallow about 25% of his rice acreage. Most farmers have crop insurance that covers prevented planting by drought, he said, but those who have it won’t turn a profit on their unplanted acres.

“It’ll cost every grower quite a bit of money,” Butler said, “and depending upon the level of coverage that you purchase, you may or may not even cover all of your fixed expenses.”

Though he also faced a 25% cut in his water supply, Colusa County grower Alex Sutton said he doesn’t expect it will affect his rice acreage, some of which he’s replaced with almonds and walnuts. Because his tree crops use less water, it will allow him to shift water to his rice fields, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected California rice acreage at 500,000 this year, similar to the last two years. Growers say the 2020 projections likely did not account for acres farmers will leave out due to reduced water supplies. They agreed acreage could be much lower if not for March/April storms that helped bolster the snowpack and supplies in reservoirs.

In his region, Butte County grower Josh Sheppard said those last storms led to a “serious rain delay” that halted his field work for a week to 10 days, though he noted other parts of the valley did not face the same difficulties. He received a full allocation of water and said he expects to plant all his acreage.

“The prospects for farming rice look good,” he said. “We’ve had better years, but the rice market is healthy right now.”

It helps that there’s not much carryover rice from last year that will “compete with the new rice that we’re planting,” Sheppard added.

Strong medium-grain markets

Medium-grain Calrose rice—the predominant variety grown in the state—has been in “relatively short supply and high demand,” Butler said, adding, “it should be a good marketing year for those growers who can plant enough acres to be profitable.”

Yuba County grower Keith Davis noted how the pandemic has boosted sales of food staples such as rice that have a long shelf life.

As a farmer who also runs a grain elevator and rice dryer, Butler said his operation has been “shipping rice as fast as we can ship it for the last month or so,” adding, “if there is such a thing as a positive impact from the shelter-in-place orders … Calrose seems to be one of the products that’s benefited from it.”

But a concern, Davis said, relates to shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, which his employees will need in the coming weeks when they perform ground applications of certain chemicals.

“It could create a problem for us,” he said. “Rural counties are trying to get things reopened, but that doesn’t mean the supplies and any of this stuff are going to be readily available.”

Davis noted his employees go through three to four disposable Tyvek suits a day when they’re spraying, which is done for 30 days, and the few suits he’s found so far would not last a week.

Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com. This article first appeared in the California Farm Bureau’s Ag Alert.

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