Rice harvest races start of autumn rains

Issue Date: September 20, 2017
By Ching Lee
Rice harvest at this Sutter County farm started with a field of short-grain rice last week. The earlier-maturing variety is typically one of the first to be harvested in the Sacramento Valley.
Photo/Ching Lee
Sutter County rice farmer Greg Van Dyke.
Photo/Ching Lee

After being held up by late spring rains that led to a hectic planting schedule, California rice farmers have begun harvesting what is expected to be a smaller crop.

With an estimated 458,000 acres in production this year, California rice acreage declined by 78,000 acres from 2016, according to a forecast this month from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers have attributed that drop to the difficult spring weather that did not allow them to finish on time.

"Everybody in the industry thought we were going to have a big crop this year," said Sutter County rice farmer Greg Van Dyke. "But with the type of weather we had, we just physically couldn't get in and plant it."

He ended up leaving 40 percent of his normal acreage fallow because it got too late in the season to plant the rest.

The late planting was also expected to push back the start of harvest, which could put farmers at risk of early fall rains that could wreak havoc on their crop. Farmers agree the number of sweltering days this summer helped speed growth of the plants, but there are also concerns that the high heat could lower yields.

"I don't think yields are going to be bad by any means; I just think they're going to be slightly reduced from last year, which had very good yields," Van Dyke said.

A smaller incoming crop could help firm up prices, he added, noting the depressed rice market in recent years. Also boosting grower optimism is the prospect of China, the world's largest consumer, opening its doors to U.S. rice. A phytosanitary agreement reached by the U.S. and China in July is expected to be particularly beneficial to California growers and millers, by raising long-term export sales.

Van Dyke started harvest last week on a short-grain variety, which has a shorter growing season than the state's predominant, medium-grain Calrose variety and is typically one of the first to come off in the Sacramento Valley.

Colusa County farmer Brian Barrett said he expects some medium-grain fields will begin cutting sometime next week, with harvest ramping up in October, on par with typical harvest dates.

"I think (the crop) has caught up a little bit, but I think it'll still be about a week behind where we were last year," he said.

His family managed to plant all their ground except for about 100 acres, which were covered by prevented-planting insurance. The option of the indemnity, Barrett said, allowed farmers to focus on the fields they were able to plant.

"It was like, let's do it right and get the best crop we could," he said.

With half his acreage in the Yolo Bypass, which remained flooded late in the season, Yolo County farmer Mike Hall said he left some 4,800 acres unplanted. He completed harvest on about 2,000 acres of wild rice—another short-season crop—more than two weeks ago, but he said some of his later-maturing, medium-grain varieties won't be harvested until mid-October.

"When you start to get into October, you run the risk of late October wind and rain that could knock (the plant) down," he said. "We've encountered that before, where the yield was cut more than 50 percent when those fields just got wet and knocked down."

Because many fields were planted during a two-week window, Barrett said if farmers try to harvest it all in a similar timeframe, it could "make things hard" for dryers as they face a possible logjam.

Yuba County farmer Charley Mathews Jr., who expects to start harvest sometime this week, said when there's late planting, farmers typically scramble on the back end, with multiple varieties coming off at the same time.

"It's going to be a rush, but it always is," he said. "We all harvest a lot faster than we used to."

Now that the weather has started to cool down, he said, it has slowed progress of the crop.

Consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures this summer may cause some yield losses, Barrett said.

During the heading stage of the rice plant, temperatures exceeding 104 degrees could dry out the pollen, thwarting fertilization, which leads to blanking, or empty kernels, said Luis Espino, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor.

"And this year, I've seen some of that," he said. "I don't know how widespread it is. It's going to depend on when the panicles were coming out and the temperature at that time. I've seen some fields where you can see can blanking, and I believe it's because of the high temperature."

Blanking more often happens when temperatures below 55 degrees damage the pollen when it is first formed, making it unviable, Espino said. But this year, temperatures never dropped that low during that stage of the plant's development, raising hopes that there would be less blanking and higher yields, he said.

Aside from possible heat-related issues, Espino described the overall growing season as "good," noting that he didn't see any blast in fields and received few reports of it this year. However, there were more reports of stem rot, a common fungal disease caused by a pathogen in the soil that he said may be becoming more prevalent.

The pathogen overwinters in rice straw, and farmers used to manage the disease by burning the straw after harvest. Because burning has been greatly reduced for many years, Espino said he thinks the pathogen has accumulated in some fields, leading to an increase in stem-rot problems. Fungicides, he noted, have not been very effective.

Small infestations of weedy rice, or red rice, also are showing up in more California fields, Espino said. As of the end of 2016, it had been confirmed in more than 10,000 acres, according to UCCE.

Because the weed is considered one of the most damaging for rice and can affect yield and quality significantly, Espino said farm advisors have been "trying to spread the word and get growers to be on the lookout for it."

"We want to make sure that if a grower finds something that looks suspicious, they let us know," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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