rice with rice husk
Rice with rice husk. (Photo: Naowarat / Shutterstock.com)

By Ching Lee, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

This time of year, the Sacramento Valley should be buzzing with tractors working the soil and planes dropping rice seed onto flooded fields as farmers ramp up planting.

In the heart of California rice country, the town of Maxwell in Colusa County gets busy during planting season. Farmer Brian Barrett, who grew up here, said he would see people running around, going to the parts store, maybe grabbing lunch at the local eatery.

“That dollar’s getting rolled down Main Street,” he said. But this year, “it’s a ghost town.”

There’s a lack of activity because more rice fields will go unplanted this season due to the drought and reduced water deliveries to farms. In its prospective plantings report released at the end of March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that California rice acreage will drop to 348,000 this year, the lowest since 1983-84. That’s compared to 407,000 acres last year and 517,000 acres in 2020.

Farmers such as Barrett say they think actual acreage may end up being much lower than the current USDA estimate.

Much of the economic hit is being felt on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, especially farms in Colusa and Glenn counties that get water from irrigation districts that divert from the Sacramento River, or Sacramento River Settlement Contractors. In past critically dry years, those irrigation districts received 75% of contract amounts. This is the first year they’re getting 18%.

The Northern California Water Association estimated that of the 450,000 acres of all farmland in the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors service area, 370,000 acres will go fallow this year due to reduced water deliveries. That amounts to some $925 million in direct on-farm impact. Specific to rice, impacts could reach an estimated $251 million, with more than $76 million associated with lost wages.

Rice farmers who are fallowing ground say crop insurance will help them make ends meet. But they expressed concern about long-term drought impacts that could potentially collapse the rice-farming infrastructure, including businesses that support them, such as rice mills, dryers, aerial applicators, trucking companies and suppliers.

“I’m really worried about what’s going to happen to these small towns—not just this year but next year,” Barrett said.

On rented land where he has wells, Barrett said he’s using groundwater to avoid having to fallow. But on his family’s own farm that has no access to groundwater, he said this will be the first time not “a single kernel of rice” is planted.

Even with the cost of fuel and fertilizer soaring, Barrett said he’s not skimping on inputs, as the higher market price for rice will help him offset the increased cost to produce the grain. Plus, he said he’s doing what he can to get good yields and more of the crop into the marketplace to keep it well supplied.

“If you’ve got water, my thought is we need all the rice we can get,” he said. “What I don’t want is for these markets to leave, and then we go back to a full planting and this thing just crashes.”

With farmers in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District—the largest of the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors—getting 0.4 acre-feet of water per deeded acre this year, down from 4.1 acre-feet in past critically dry years, Larry Maben said he won’t be farming any rice. The district estimates about 1,150 acres of rice will be planted with surface water this year, down from 79,172 acres in 2021.

Maben noted growers will likely end up with less than the allocated amount due to losses from the delivery system. On average, it takes about 5 acre-feet of water per acre to grow a field of rice, according to the University of California Cooperative Extension. With such a reduced allocation, Maben said, “the rice that’s going to be raised here is going to be raised on wells for the most part.” Even though he has access to wells, he said, “I don’t trust them enough” to depend on them for growing rice.

Maben also grows olives for oil in the region. With more farmers tapping the aquifer to grow crops such as rice, he said he fears there will be less water for other crops such as trees.

“Groundwater is a finite resource,” he said. “The more that’s used here is less that will be available later on, and we’re already in an overdraft situation.”

He lamented he’s already seeing effects of the reduced rice plantings on the local farming community. He noted the company that does his aerial applications told him they will need to find additional work out of state to make up for the lack of work here.

“It’s a real cascade effect,” Maben said. “I’m concerned about the operations that are local, your friends, family here in the local community that may not be able to make it.”

Bill Weller, who farms in Colusa and Glenn counties, said the only rice he’ll be planting this year is with groundwater. Having crop insurance, he said, he’ll do OK financially. But he noted he didn’t hire any of his regular part-time crew that helps with planting, and he worries about other employees who work in rice dryers, trucking and chemical companies.

He said he’s also noticing the impacts on wildlife. Because there’s so little water out there, Weller said he’s having to go out at night to scare off geese that use his rice fields as a refuge and food source.

“The fields that are watered are getting hammered,” he said. “I know a couple other farmers have had to reseed a few times just because the geese are eating the rice.”

On the east side of the valley, growers who belong to irrigation districts that divert water from the Feather River face a second year of 50% cutbacks. These cuts may not be as “draconian” as on the west side of the valley, said Carl Hoff, president and CEO of Butte County Rice Growers Association, but some of the same impacts are being felt, just not as “catastrophic.” All parts of the cooperative—seed, drying, storage and marketing—will be reduced due to less acreage being planted, he noted.

Even though he’ll be able to plant less than 60% of his ground, Butte County farmer David Lundberg said his concern is for the future, as he has no wells on his ranch.

“We just need more storage and more rain and snowpack next year or else we’re going to be in the same boat,” he said.

The robust rice market right now may help soften the blow of skyrocketing production costs for farmers, said Yuba County grower Michael Rue, but “in the long term, this is not a good deal.” Commercial markets often react to higher prices by turning to other producers or by using other types of starches, he said. The only way to win them back is with lower prices, he added.

“It’s never good when you lose demand,” Rue said. “Then when you have a normal crop and you need those markets, it’s not easy to get them back.”

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