Rice activities are in full swing around the valley, as local growers prepare and plant their fields for the season.
“We’re in every phase of rice production now — tractor work, fertilizer, irrigation and seeding,” said Kurt Richter, general manager of the Colusa County-based rice farming operation Richter AG.
Whitney Brim-DeForest, University of California Cooperative Extension rice and wild rice advisor and county director, said growers have been able to get into the fields a little earlier than usual to conduct tillage operations and apply fertilizers due to the record dry winter the region has experienced this year.
“Average rice planting date is usually May 15, with most fields planted in the month of May,” said Brim-DeForest. “Some fields this year have already been planted, so I would guess that the average planting date for 2021 will be a little earlier than normal.”
Jim Morris, communication director for the California Rice Commission, said while some have been able to start early, rice activities are on schedule.
“May will be extremely busy for rice planting, which, with only a few exceptions, is done by high-speed, low-flying, GPS-guided airplanes flown by expert pilots,” said Morris.
Brim-DeForest said as soon as the rice has been planted, pest control operations and scouting will be done in May through July before the fields are dried down for harvest starting in August through September.
“We usually harvest in September through November,” said Brim-DeForest. “This year, due to the early planting, we may be harvesting a couple of weeks early, depending on weather conditions.”
One big challenge facing growers this year is water due to the dry conditions.
“Due to the drought, water is really tight right now with the federal curtailment and pumping restrictions,” said Richter.
Morris said there are apparent cutbacks in surface water deliveries of at least 25 percent in the Sacramento Valley, which will translate into less rice acreage being farmed this year.
“We will not know how many acres of rice are planted until late spring,” said Morris. “Fortunately, we have rice in storage, so there should be adequate rice for our customers.”
Brim-DeForest said some growers will be able to make up for the allocation cuts by pumping groundwater for irrigation if they have their own wells, but acreage of rice farmed will definitely be down this year.
While Morris said he does not anticipate a shortage of rice this year, he did say that it is important to remember that when less rice is grown it impacts communities in the Sacramento Valley.
“Allied businesses will be impacted,” said Morris. “Additionally, less rice grown means reduced wildlife habitat. Area rice fields provide food and a resting place for millions of birds. The environmental value of rice fields is even greater in a year like this, because there’s less water on the entire landscape.”
Morris said the industry has also had a few hurdles from the pandemic over the past twelve months.
“Worker safety is the highest priority of our rice farms and mills, and they’ve been doing everything they can to keep employees safe,” said Morris.
Brim-DeForest said there were some disruptions to labor availability in 2020, which seems to have carried over into the current season, but because farmers are part of the essential sector, they all continued to work through the pandemic.
Ritcher said the pandemic has caused other shortages within the industry as well.
“The only impact from COVID we’ve experienced this year has been shortages on various supplies and services, coupled with steeply rising prices,” said Richter.
Looking ahead, Morris said the dry year is a challenge, but the industry will persevere.
“We’ve grown rice in the Sacramento Valley for more than a century,” said Morris. “There have been dry years before, and we’ve found a way to get through them.”
Brim-DeForest said she is hoping for perfect weather – not too hot or too cold – during the spring and summer for optimal production of rice and other area crops.