Sept./Oct. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Megan Alpers
Photos by Kathy Coatney, Brian Baer, Leslie Morris, Devin Bruce and California Rice Commission
Get the inside scoop
You don't need to hop in a car to visit Sandy Denn's Snow Goose Farms. Just hop on your computer. Once on her blog—one of more than two dozen at www.calrice.org created by California rice growers—Denn will take you on a behind-the-scenes tour of her family's farm. The blog provides a unique perspective of the daily activities, history, challenges and pleasures involved in growing rice in the Golden State.
Denn's father and uncle originally settled in the Willows area, about an hour and a half north of Sacramento, to raise livestock. By the time World War II concluded, local farmers had discovered how well rice grew in the area. The family sold their cattle and sheep and transitioned all of their fields to rice. Today, she and her husband, Wally, work the farm, in the heart of what has become known as California rice country.
Glenn County rice farmer, pilot and blogger Sandy Denn describes the summer fields of Snow Goose Farms as "full of lushness."
Like approximately 2,500 other California families growing rice, the Denns begin the annual process in March. Once fields are prepared, planes swoop overhead to distribute the seeds by air.
Denn—a licensed pilot herself—has a view of farm life that most can only imagine.
"It is like being able to feel poetry in motion," she said of her time in the cockpit. "A good pilot makes it look simple with coordinated turns and appropriate power settings."
Through the summer, the grass produced by the rice plant turns to grain. Denn describes that time of year as "full of lushness," but says her favorite season is fall, as the rice nears harvest.
"The grain heads go through a milky period when it tastes sweet," she explained. "Then the colors begin to change as it ripens, going through stages of yellow, a reddish hue, then a white hue, and the heads bend over as they harden into actual kernels of rice."
And when harvest begins, she said, "the air is sweet with a smell that even beats out the smell of a fresh-cut lawn or freshly mown hay."
Calrose rice seeds are distributed by air at Snow Goose Farms. This medium-grain variety is used for premium sushi rice.
Denn and her family aren't the only ones who appreciate the life cycle of rice on the farm. Each year, millions of birds pass through the Pacific Flyway, including the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, just a mile south of Snow Goose Farms.
"I enjoy being able to witness the annual 'rebirth' of the crop, and being up close and personal with the abundance of wildlife that the rice attracts and sustains throughout the year," Denn said.
In addition to producing food and expelling oxygen into the atmosphere, rice plants provide habitat for hundreds of species of birds, invertebrates and mammals. That wildlife is what gave Denn's farm its name.
"During the fall and early winter months, the fields are literally covered with waterfowl—the highest percentage of which is snow geese," she said.
Snow geese are among the nearly 230 wildlife species that depend on Sacramento Valley rice fields for food and habitat.
On her blog, Denn enjoys talking about her farm and discussing the nuances of growing and eating rice.
"It's important to understand how little water rice uses, compared to what it appears to use when casually observed," she said, adding, "Rice is nourishing, one of the best values on your plate, and our fields provide a home to millions of birds. You gotta love it!"
What types of rice are grown in California?
California farms specialize in premium sushi rice. Calrose, which was developed at the Rice Experiment Station in Butte County by breeding multiple varieties of rice, is by far the most common variety in the state and has become synonymous with California medium-grain rice. It is distinct from rice grown elsewhere (primarily the southern U.S.), where long-grain rice is more common. If you're eating sushi or a teriyaki rice bowl in the United States, chances are the rice came from California.
How can I tell if the rice I'm buying was grown in California?
Look for the Calrose name on the rice's packaging. Eighty-five percent of California-grown rice is the Calrose variety.
How did rice farming start in California?
During the Gold Rush, rice was grown as sustenance for miners. The first commercial plantings occurred in the Sacramento Valley more than a century ago.
Why is rice grown in water?
Rice is a semi-aquatic plant and needs water to grow and thrive. California rice is grown with water efficiency in mind. The depth of water in rice fields is only about 5 inches. The heavy clay soils of the Sacramento Valley act like a bathtub and hold the water in place.
Do rice farms provide habitat for wildlife?
Yes, nearly 230 wildlife species live in Sacramento Valley rice fields. The fields provide nearly 60 percent of the food for the millions of ducks and geese that migrate along the Pacific Flyway each winter, and are considered surrogate wetlands. There are many good viewing opportunities in the Sacramento Valley, including wildlife refuges.
Does rice ever go bad?
Rice is hearty and can last a long time. Just avoid excessive heat or moisture. (Your pantry is fine for storage.) White rice can be stored longer than brown rice. Uncooked brown rice can last six to eight months in a pantry, while white rice can last four to five years. Once cooked, keep brown rice refrigerated for up to five days and white rice for about a week.
By the numbers
- There are approximately 2,500 family rice farmers in California.
- The Sacramento Valley is home to 97 percent of the state's rice farms.
- California ricelands provide open space and habitat for nearly 230 species of wildlife.
- Nearly 5 billion pounds of rice are produced here annually. That's more than two-and-a-half times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge.
- About 85 percent of California-grown rice is Calrose medium grain, the variety used to make sushi.
- Americans eat an average of 25 pounds of rice a year.
- One pound of rice makes about 16 servings.
- A serving of rice costs 10 cents.
Sources: California Rice Commission, US Rice Producers Association, USA Rice Federation
The annual cycle of a rice farm
March: In preparation for planting, fields are carefully leveled with GPS-guided equipment. (Flat fields allow rice farmers to conserve water.) Fertilizer is applied, shallow furrows are rolled into the field and 5 inches of water is added.
April: Rice seeds are soaked and then loaded onto small planes. The planes fly at 100 miles per hour above the fields, evenly distributing seeds. The heavy seeds sink into the furrows and begin to grow.
August: Plants are maturing and reaching 3 feet in height. By late summer, the grain begins to appear in long, loose clusters on the top of the plant.
September: The water is drained back into the soil to become groundwater, and specialized harvesters remove the grain from the plant. The crop is then dried and stored until it is taken to a mill. At the mill, the hull is removed, leaving brown rice. For white rice, the bran layers are removed, leaving just the pearly inner grain.
November: A shallow amount of water is again added to the fields, allowing the remaining rice straw to decompose while providing wildlife habitat throughout the winter months.
Nearly 230 species of wildlife call California rice fields home, at least part of the year. Laws Pocket Guide to Birds of the Sacramento Valley can help you identify unique species.
A view from a California rice farm
Sandy Denn blogs about her Glenn County rice farm. From challenges with drought to the memories of decades of rice harvests, follow Denn and her family as they continue the tradition of growing rice in the Sacramento Valley. The blog is available at calrice.org.