A local family rice business is in the process of harvesting their 100th rice crop.
Dennis Spooner, of Spooner & Sons, has been farming for most of his life – being involved in the family business for the last 52 years – and his son, Ty Spooner, has been involved for about 29 years.
Dennis Spooner said his family came from Canada in the late 1850s and some ended up in what is now Willows – at that time the area was known as Glenn and was part of Colusa County.
Dennis Spooner has a photo from 1915 of his great-grandfather and five of his sons (one of whom is Dennis Spooner’s grandfather) with a wooden harvester that was pulled by 28 mules – he believes it was either in a wheat or barley field when the photo was taken.
“They used the harvester to cut that first rice crop (in 1919),” Dennis Spooner said. “... You wouldn’t catch anybody doing that today, you can imagine all the work of getting those prepared every morning and then putting them away at night and putting in a full day with them is quite an extravaganza.”
They were the original Spooner & Sons – his great-grandfather being the first generation.
Dennis Spooner said his grandfather was the second, his father was the third generation, he is the fourth and his children are the fifth generation – his daughter is not currently involved in the business.
“Like a lot of farmers, I was born into it,” Ty Spooner said. “... I grew up here, I grew up on the ranch ... and it’s all I ever knew. I was driving a tractor when I was 10 years old. It’s a nice lifestyle, and I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to continue that.”
Dennis Spooner said they grow both organic and commercial rice for Lundberg Family Farms and they also grow a number of specialty varieties such as long-grains and Jasmines.
The father-son duo, along with their full-time employee, Marshall Masters, are currently in the process of harvesting this season’s crop.
“So far we’re off to a good start this year,” Dennis Spooner said. “... It looks real good, we’re on pace to have a good year.”
He said they started in September and it can last about a month, depending on the weather.
“Anytime we finish before Halloween, I think that’s pretty good,” Dennis Spooner said.
When he was a child, he said, it wasn’t uncommon for them to be harvesting through Thanksgiving.
“Between the equipment and between our new varieties that California has produced … that has probably taken a month off our growing time,” Dennis Spooner said. “It’s quite an advantage for growers to have these varieties and the equipment we have, it makes it a lot easier.”
He said one of the biggest changes he’s noticed in farming is the equipment that’s used.
“It’s just gotten so much more technical because we have computers, it’s more of a science,” Dennis Spooner said. “You’re hands on from experience but you have soil tests that you monitor … your equipment has monitors on it … you drive (the equipment) but everything is off a GPS satellite so it goes in a straight line and you don’t have to worry about it as you’re tending a harvester or tractor or driving anything else. The equipment has come a long way.”
Ty Spooner said there have been changes in regulations as well.
“We’re so restricted in California for what we can and can’t do, what we can use, when we can use it, how we use it,” he said. “... Everybody is in that same boat, so regulations are a big part of the changes we’ve overcome … for the better most of the time it seems like. We get pushed in a direction that maybe we didn’t always want to go but us farmers are resilient and always figure out how to make it better.”
Dennis Spooner said California has been instrumental in leading the nation in how farming and equipment has progressed.
“We have the infrastructure that most places don’t have, we have water, we have the land, we have a good climate,” he said.
“I feel very fortunate doing what I do,” he said. “... There’s satisfaction in knowing that you feed a lot of people, that you’re productive and efficient ... We’ve been doing it for a while and most of the time we enjoy it.”