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Water a concern as rice harvest begins

Issue Date: September 17, 2014
By Ching Lee
Sutter County farmer Greg Van Dyke stands in a field of short-grain rice being harvested last week in Pleasant Grove. California growers say while their growing season was generally good, concerns remain about whether there will be water available for post-harvest rice-straw decomposition.
Photo/Ching Lee
A field of short-grain rice is being harvested in Sutter County. The early-maturing variety usually kicks off the start of the state’s rice-harvest season.
Photo/Ching Lee

As rice harvest ramps up in the state, farmers agree their crop benefited from this year's good growing season, but impacts of the drought linger, with concerns that there won't be water available to decompose rice straw left in fields, a critical wildlife habitat during the winter for millions of birds.

Sutter County grower Greg Van Dyke started harvest nearly two weeks ago on a short-grain variety that is one of the earliest to mature and expects to begin harvesting medium-grain Calrose, the predominant variety in the state, in another week.

He said while the growing season "went fine," limited water allocation from the South Sutter Water District presented some challenges, including the need to reduce 25 percent of his acreage and having to upgrade two pumps on his wells, which has increased his production costs.

Some 140,000 acres of rice went unplanted this year due to water shortfalls, according to the California Rice Commission. That's a 25 percent decrease from last year's crop.

Van Dyke said because he planted fewer acres this year, he also hired 15 percent less seasonal labor and didn't buy as much fertilizer, herbicide, fuel and other inputs.

"It just trickles down throughout the entire economy," he added.

To reduce demand on water and thereby lower his cost, Van Dyke said he did more dry-seeding this year. While the cultural practice is not widely used in the state, he said it cut his water use by 15 percent to 20 percent an acre without sacrificing yield. Because dry-seeded fields are not under water early on, there's less aquatic weed growth, reducing herbicide cost.

Glenn County grower Larry Maben said his planting was delayed because the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District didn't deliver water to growers until May, but the rice caught up "fairly well" and he expects to start harvest the first week of October. He said his wells got him through the season and he was able to plant all his normal acreage.

But he said his irrigation district has informed growers there won't be any water for rice-straw decomposition, and without the ability to burn the straw, farmers will need to find other ways to remove it.

"The only thing we can do is try to incorporate it and just hope there's enough moisture in the soil to break it down," he said, noting he will probably need to pump some water to wet his fields after harvest if there is not enough rainfall to properly decompose the straw. "But if we don't get some rain this winter, it's going to be a moot point, because we're not going to be raising any rice next year."

Luis Espino, a rice farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, said decent winter rains will help with decomposition, if fields become well soaked and the straw is worked into the soil. But if the straw doesn't completely decompose by spring, growers will have to do more field work before they can plant. Too much organic matter in the field will produce gasses that can hurt the rice, he added.

Yuba County grower Paul Baggett said if there is not enough winter water for rice-straw decomposition, some growers may end up baling it, which he did on 300 acres last year and then sold it to a company that used it for erosion control. But he said he doesn't know how viable the option is if there's no demand for the straw, as baling can be costly.

Espino said some straw may be baled for cattle feed, but to do that, it has to be baled immediately following harvest when the straw is still moist. Baling has its drawbacks, as farmers won't be putting back nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous from the straw into the soil, and that means they may need to use more fertilizer in the spring, he said.

Another concern with having a lack of water for winter flooding is the loss of winter habitat for waterfowl and other birds that use rice fields for food and as a resting place, said Paul Buttner, environmental affairs manager for the California Rice Commission.

Normally, about 80 percent of the state's rice straw is decomposed in the field, or some 425,000 acres, and of that, 250,000 to 300,000 acres are winter flooded. But this year, winter-flooded fields could be as low as 50,000 acres, Buttner said.

"These acres are critically important, because there's only a couple of thousand acres of wetlands in the Central Valley and those numbers will be down, so there's a huge concern over the amount of food available for these wintering birds, as well as concerns over disease if they're too concentrated in the small habitat that is available to them," he said.

Not all growers will have access to groundwater for the purpose of rice-straw decomposition because there is a limited number of wells in the Sacramento Valley region, Buttner added. The cost to pump water also is generally significantly more expensive than using surface water unless the farm can generate extra revenue, such as by having a duck-hunting operation, he noted.

Butte County grower Rocky Donati, who buys water from the Richvale Irrigation District, said he fallowed 25 percent of his acreage in order to sell water to farmers in other parts of the state who are in more-dire need of it.

But Ralph Cassady, another Butte County grower who also had the option to participate in the water transfer, said he decided to plant all his ground, in part because of the promising market outlook.

Baggett said he is optimistic about the market because he thinks the reduced plantings this year will drive a higher price for rice, although higher yields could offset some of the unplanted acreage.

Southern rice-growing states also have planted more medium-grain rice this year in reaction to the shorter California crop. While that rice cannot compete with the Golden State on quality, Baggett said, "it still does fill some markets that we will be unable to fill."

(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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