• By Ching Lee •
Dry weather this spring has created ideal planting conditions for California rice farmers, but lack of available irrigation water has forced cutbacks to how much they can grow.
Unhindered by spring rains and soggy fields that typically slow planting progress, Brian McKenzie, who farms rice in Sacramento, Sutter, Placer and Yolo counties, said he expects to finish 20 days ahead of his normal schedule, which bodes well for the crop. Delayed plantings usually push harvest into the autumn rainy season, raising the prospect of lower yields.
“As a grower, I feel fortunate to have such a dry spring, even though we needed the rain,” he said.
Due to worsening hydrologic conditions, rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley have seen their surface water deliveries reduced by an average 25% to 50%, with some cut as much as 100%, said Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission.
Initial estimates indicate California farmers will grow about 100,000 fewer acres of rice this year, down 20% from the average 500,000 acres grown annually in the state, he added. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated California 2021 rice acreage at 471,000, a decline of 9% from last year.
“These cuts will not only have an impact on farmers but also the small towns in the Sacramento Valley that are dependent on rice farming, rice milling, trucking and all the services that go into bringing rice to our customers in the state, U.S. and around the world,” Johnson said during a media briefing last week at Farm Air Flying Service in Sacramento.
McKenzie, who leases a lot of his ground and custom farms for other growers, said he doesn’t “have the opportunity to fallow acres,” adding that he relies on surface water and groundwater to grow his crops, depending on the ranch.
“If it has water, which it does, or if we can get water to it, we’re going to plant it,” he said. “We’re rice farmers; we’re going to grow rice.”
Other farmers also are planting full acreage, rice commission spokesman Jim Morris said. Even though acreage will likely be lower this year, he said weather has been favorable to finish planting on time, which helps, and that farmers are planting their best-performing fields, which could boost per-acre yields.
Except for a few days of gusty winds that reached 30 to 40 mph, which created “havoc in the field” by potentially bunching seeds that had been sowed, Colusa County rice farmer Don Bransford agreed that temperatures have been “wonderful” for planting, and said impacts from the wind “may be minimal.”
Larger water districts in the region, including the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, of which Bransford serves as board president, are participating in water transfer programs to help address water shortages. Bransford said his district, which irrigates about 90,000 acres, is looking to idle about 15,000 acres, with most of that water going to San Joaquin Valley farms.
Irrigation districts that divert water from the Sacramento River — Sacramento River Settlement Contractors — have already voluntarily reduced diversions to conserve cold water in Shasta Lake and protect fish, Bransford said, noting that GCID is diverting about a third less water than it typically does.
With the price of rice trending higher in anticipation of lower California acreage, Bransford said he thinks fewer farmers may be willing to idle ground and participate in water transfer programs this year, compared to the 2014-15 drought year.
“I think there’s optimism from a grower’s perspective that the price is up,” he said. “As the price goes up, that interest decreases, because farmers want to grow food.”
Rice ground idled
Of the more than 100,000 acres of rice ground expected to be idled this year due to water shortages, Lewis Bair, general manager of Reclamation District 108, said 30,000 to 40,000 of those relate to water transfers; the majority is due to reductions in surface water supplies.
Though markets represent a prime driver for farmer participation in water transfers, Bair said there’s more willingness from Sacramento River Settlement Contractors to “spread the pain” by selling water if it also helps salmon and farmers elsewhere who are struggling with water shortages.
Fritz Durst, who farms rice in Yolo and Colusa counties, said he “felt obligated” to engage in transfers, though he “would really rather grow rice.” He said he sees the transfers as part of the solution to some of the environmental and urban needs for water.
“It’s tough in a year when we have the right to the water and we’re the ones with the canteen full of water and everybody else’s canteen is empty,” he said. “We need to share, even though it hurts me and it has an impact on my community.”
With already lower inventories and reduced acreage, the price of rice will probably continue to climb, Durst said—and that’s a concern, because “you can actually price yourself out of the market” and lose buyers.
Jim Van Dyke, owner of Van Dyke’s Rice Dryer in Pleasant Grove, said the short water year affects not only farmers but businesses such as his that dry and store rice.
Van Dyke serves as a board member of the South Sutter Water District, which delivers 70% to 80% of its water to rice growers. He said the district normally delivers 2 acre-feet of water per acre to growers, but it will deliver just seven-tenths of an acre-foot this year. Some farmers will be able to supplement with groundwater, but he said he thinks others in the district will probably not plant half of what they normally do.
“It’s a big cut and it’s going to affect everybody,” he said.
Sutter County farmer Mike Daddow said he’s had “a lot more time” this spring to work on deferred maintenance on the farm, because water cutbacks forced him to plant only half his acreage.
“There’s some prevented-planting insurance I can collect, but it’s going to be a tough year,” he said.
Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. This article first appeared in the California Farm Bureau’s Ag Alert newspaper.