The fierce storms and heavy rain that have pounded California in recent weeks could be the lifeline that one industry – and the communities that rely on it for their own survival – desperately needs.
After years of drought, California has received an epic amount of rain already in 2023. While it was much-needed, the back-to-back heavy storms also ravaged the state for weeks, creating dangerous flooding and mudslides that led to at least 20 deaths and billions of dollars in economic losses, by some estimates.
But in one part of the state, anxious communities are ready to embrace more rain.
The Sacramento Valley is the hub of California’s rice production. If you’ve eaten sushi in the US, the sticky rice most likely is a medium grain variety called Calrose, sourced from the Golden State. Nearly all of the nation’s sushi rice comes from California.
Growing rice – a semi-aquatic plant – requires an abundance of water. During the seed planting and growing season, which runs from March through August, farmers flood rice fields with up to five inches of water.
But three consecutive years of drought in the state have baked hundreds of thousands of acres of Sacramento Valley’s lush green rice paddies into dry barren land.
“Driving through Sacramento Valley, I’ve seen many more open fallow rice fields with nothing on them,” said Andrew Broaddus, an agricultural economist and president with Wells Fargo Agricultural Services. “It’s because land that’s used for rice farming really can’t be used for another crop.”
With each passing year of the drought, reservoir levels plunged, dropping to half of their historic averages, or even less. State-controlled water allocations to rice farms was no longer guaranteed, and for many of them, stopped completely.
Consequently, rice production in the Sacramento Valley has dropped significantly, said Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission, a nonprofit representing over 2,500 rice farmers and handlers in the state.
“This is a make it or break it year for many farmers and businesses in the industry. We’re really hoping the significant storms we’ve had since November will make the farm businesses and livelihood of farmers and the rural communities here more normal.”
About 500,000 acres of rice are normally produced in a typical year in the Sacramento Valley. “In 2022, it was half of the normal planting, at 250,000 acres,” said Johnson.
Rice crops contribute as much as $5 billion a year and tens of thousands of jobs to California’s economy. Last year, $750 million and more than 5,000 jobs were lost as rice farming and its allied activities stalled, according to the Commission.
“The spider web effect of it spread through the industry and rural towns in the rice belt. Mills and rice drying facilities cut back on shifts, trucking and agriculture supply companies lost business,” said Broaddus.
Greg Ponciano is mayor of Colusa, a city in Colusa County in the Sacramento region with about 6,000 residents, and it’s among the top rice producers in the state.
Colusa’s life blood is its agricultural economy, which means a drought, especially a long one, could deliver a crippling blow to its community.
“We’re right in the middle of rice country. The way the rice business goes is how the economy goes,” Ponciano said. “Three years of drought here has become the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
He listed the ripple effects of it: “Farmers can’t farm, farms have lost employees, fuel and fertilizer businesses that help run the farms stopped making deliveries. Even the local restaurants have lost business,” he said.
Colusa County historically plants about 150,000 acres of rice. “It was just over 7,000 acres in 2022,” said Ponciano. As work evaporated, some families packed up and left to look for work elsewhere, he said.
While he’s hopeful that the recent rains will provide some relief, he’s being realistic. “We need more than one season of rain to recover. One season won’t get us out of this,” he said.
Richard Richter, 70, owner of Richter Aviation, said his son, Nick, had to find work in another state last summer because the drought dried up demand for agricultural aircraft in the small farming community of Maxwell, in Colusa County.
“I’ve been tin he business since 1983. In 40 years I haven’t experienced a drought like this ever. It’s unprecedented,” he said.
As much as 95% of his customers farm rice. His planes are used during the April-May-June planting season to drop seeds in the rice fields. “That’s really our busiest time,” he said.
Last year was brutal for him. In a normal year, all seven of his aircraft would be in demand. Last year, only one was used.
“It cost us a lot in lost revenue. Normally we do up of $3 million a year in gross revenue. Last year it was $600,000,” said Richter. “It was just terrible.”
Richter and his son both fly the planes. The business also utilizes four temporary pilots. “We had to let them go. My son went to Indiana for five weeks last summer to find work,” he said.
With this year’s planting season fast approaching, Richter is cautiously optimistic. “I’m anxiously awaiting what demand will look like,” he said.
So is Steven Sutter, CEO of California Heritage Mills, located in Maxwell.
The operation, which mills, sorts and packages rice, is owned collectively by 17 farming families who’ve worked the land in the Sacramento Valley for generations.
“We’re accustomed to droughts here. In a normal drought year, we can still supply 80% of the product to our customers,” said Sutter. It’s dropped precipitously to just 10% to 20% more recently.
“We’ve never done this before, but we actually have had to buy rice to service our customers’ needs,” said Sutter. “The worst part is we’ve had to let 30 people go since last January. We used to run three shifts five days a week. That’s dropped to just one shift five days a week.”
This year’s heavy storms have raised reservoir levels, he said. “They’re at close to historical averages, but not full yet. It’s still early in the farming season, but we’re hopeful about getting close to 50% of water allocation to the area.”
Some in the region hope for one other benefit too: the return of wildlife, including the ducks and geese who use rice fields as a natural habitat.”
Johnson said more than 230 species of wildlife use rice fields as a natural habitat.
“After harvest season, the sky over the rice fields would be filled with geese and ducks,” he said. “Instead, that time now has been quiet. We haven’t seen nearly as many birds recently.”