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In rice country, a year ‘for the history books’

Issue Date: March 12, 2014
By Ching Lee
Brothers Mark and Alex Sutton, from left, who farm rice in Colusa County, stand next to equipment awaiting the upcoming planting season. Uncertain about how much water will be available, many Sacramento Valley rice farmers are waiting to finalize planting decisions.
Photo/Ching Lee
In preparation for planting, an employee repairs equipment at a rice farming operation in Colusa County.
Photo/Ching Lee

With about a month to go before the start of their planting season, California rice farmers say uncertainty about how much water will be available to them has left them in limbo as they try to make final decisions before seeding their fields.

Unlike farmers in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, where water cutbacks to agriculture have become common, those who farm in the Sacramento Valley typically enjoy more secure water rights and historically have not had their water curtailed significantly.

The state's severe drought has changed that, however, as water districts throughout the North State face sharp reductions and farmers try to grapple with the potential impacts of those cutbacks.

"This one is for the history books. We've not gone through this exercise before," said Yuba County rice farmer Charley Mathews Jr., who farms in the Yuba County Water Agency, which has indicated that some areas could see a 20 percent reduction in supplies.

Reports that the State Water Resources Control Board was considering actions under which even some water users with senior water rights would see supplies cut severely—or entirely—sparked outcry throughout the rice-farming region that farmers' water contracts weren't being honored. The board is expected to announce its intentions next week.

Mathews said he's going to do the majority of his field preparations for now but hold off on fertilizer, seeding and other activities until there's more definitive word from his water agency or the water board on what supplies will be.

"We're still playing the wait-and-see game," said Colusa County rice farmer Mark Sutton, whose family farms in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, which has had its contracted supplies trimmed by 60 percent.

Sutton said his farm has no access to groundwater and is in no financial position to drill a well. If the current allocation stands, it would mean fallowing 60 percent of his acres. His greater concern, he said, is if the state water board decides to leave nothing for farmers.

If that happens, Sutton said, his family would not grow rice this season, and the new orchard of walnuts they planted last year likely would not make it through the summer.

"I don't know what we're going to do," he said. "I don't know how Colusa County is going to survive. Every business in this whole county thrives off of agriculture. If they take all the water, there is no agriculture."

Farmers point out that communities such as Maxwell, Colusa, Gridley, Biggs and Richvale depend on agriculture for their lifeblood, and the prospect of thousands of acres of rice ground being left unplanted this year would deal a huge economic blow to them.

California rice farmers and mills provided nearly 25,000 jobs and more than $5.4 billion to the state's economic output in 2009, according to Texas A&M University.

Applying the multiplier effect, rice farming's contributions would be much higher, said Butte County rice farmer Ryan Schohr, noting that all the ancillary businesses that serve rice farmers also will be hurt.

"The devastation on the communities is going to be unbelievable," Colusa County rice farmer Don Bransford said. "The unemployment rate is going to go sky high. There's a lot of seasonal work that is just not going to be filled."

He said while many farmers have crop insurance, which will cover preventive planting due to drought, this would not ease the impact on farming communities.

Water supply reductions come at a time when the price for medium-grain rice has surged due to market speculation that there will be fewer acres grown in California this year, Sutter County rice farmer Tom Butler said.

Expecting a 40 percent slash to his water supplies, Butler said he is looking at potentially fallowing 1,300 to 1,400 acres of his rice ground and said he thinks the state could easily lose 150,000 acres of rice production this year. California harvested 556,000 acres last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"I think there'll be enough (rice supply) where no one is going to run into a shortage, but there will not be the amount of acreage that California is usually known for," Butler said.

Glenn County rice farmer Larry Maben said the current market price looks good if farmers are able to plant and harvest their crops, but they would still need to "run the pencil for themselves" to see if it makes economic sense to plant.

He noted that even though he has access to groundwater, he's not sure how much water his wells will be able to produce and whether the cost of pumping will be worth it.

"We're running the figures, trying to figure out the cost of diesel or electricity and whether we want to run them or not," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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