Rice Farmers and Proud of It

Los Angeles Times
April 7, 1991


A rattlesnake skin hangs behind the men's toilet at Richvale Cafe. Swedish travel posters spiff up the lunchroom. Blueberry pie baked by somebody's mom waits for dessert.

Richvale's lone cafe is run by rice farmers, for the noontime pleasure of rice farmers, in the heart of California rice land. Rice has been sown here in Butte County since 1912, long enough for droughts to be accepted as part of the deal that farmers cut with nature. This lunch hour, a more bewildering force than drought, newer and more threatening, has Don Murphy poking the air with his soup spoon.

A burly man in low-flying jeans, Murphy wants it known that survival of a classic California culture, the rice towns of the Sacramento Valley, is at risk from the state's population explosion. Even if the drought ends tomorrow, he says, California is so engorged with people that water will always be in short supply. The cities, slaves to their growth, are making noises about commandeering the water used on rice farms for three generations. But Murphy pleads it would be a mistake. "You can't have the country -- the means of production -- dry up and still keep the cities thriving," said the sharp-spoken Murphy, who put his children through college on rice land in his family since the 1920s.

Chairs shift in the cafe; eyes sweep the room. Growth in metropolitan California is an uncomfortable topic in tiny Richvale, now that the forces of population and drought have merged to frame a social question that is a lunch-spoiler in cafes up the Sacramento Valley: Does rice, which loses more water to evaporation than Los Angeles uses in a year, have a place anymore in a state of 30 million people?

The case against rice, in its simplest form, is this: It drains too much water from the same reservoirs that supply most California cities, for a crop less valuable to the state's economy than turkeys or broccoli. Cotton, pasture and alfalfa take more water each year than rice. But rice is the only crop raised on fields flooded with water several inches deep through the hot months of spring and summer.

"It's a monsoon crop in a desert state," says Marc Reisner, a San Francisco author who has stated the case against rice most clearly and most often. Rice growing is a sore point for environmental groups, which covet the water as a way to meet nature's needs -- to flush out San Francisco Bay, nurture the dwindling salmon runs, and keep some historic wetlands alive. Pollution from pesticides and field burning, and federal payments that encourage rice growing, rankle even more. "We should shift water from overproduction of rice to meet higher priority needs," said Corey Brown, general counsel for the Planning and Conservation League, an alliance of 120 environmental groups. "It's just an outrageous situation."

But in towns along the Sacramento River, the state's mightiest natural waterway, rice is king. No region of California has its history so closely entwined with a single crop.

Later this month, fields now brown with last year's stubble will be flooded in a vast swath ranging north from the parking lot at Arco Arena -- the outer edge of Sacramento's suburban sprawl -- nearly to Red Bluff. In rice towns like Richvale and Colusa, the idea that melting snow runoff siphoned onto fields for decades might now be put to better use in suburbs like Hesperia and Moreno Valley would be preposterous if it wasn't so painful.

"It's taking water out of fragile rural economies to build more cracker-box houses, bring in more immigrants, and put them on welfare," said Doug McGeoghegan, manager of the 2,300-acre Gunnersfield Ranch, a rice farm and duck-hunting outpost near Maxwell. "You put three feet of water on an acre of rice in California, you're going to get 9,000 pounds of a nutritious food," said McGeoghegan, whose family homesteaded in Colusa County in 1876. "Put that water on lawns, what will you get?"

In the town of Williams, 10 varieties of packaged rice and six sacks of bulk rice are on display at Granzella's Delicatessen, pitched at motorists lured off Interstate 5. Around these parts, there is much unsolicited comment about rice's attributes as food. "Ninety percent of the world's population eats rice," said Bill Huffman, spokesman for Farmer's Rice Cooperative and grandson of a Butte County rice pioneer. "They don't eat garlic or cherries."

In the rice-eating world, California's crop is of no special importance. Arkansas produces more, so do Thailand, Brazil and a dozen nations. About a third of California's rice goes into beer and products like Rice Krispies, a third goes to stores and institutional kitchens, and the rest is exported. California's rice is coveted most by the Japanese, who prefer the sticky, brilliant-white medium grain not favored by American palates. But California rice is banned in Japan, to insulate that country's growers from market forces.

Only 2.1 million people lived in California when the first rice crop was harvested here -- fewer than in Georgia or Tennessee at the time. Water was abundant and free, or close to it, as it fell from the Sierra Nevada toward the Pacific. Dry summers and dense clay soil made the Sacramento Valley ideal -- each acre yields more rice than anywhere in the world.

"The Sacramento River valley is by no stretch a desert," said McGeoghegan, chairman of the Rice Industry Committee, a group campaigning to defend the rice culture. "Rice is grown here for a very specific reason." Towns sprouted in the valley as rice took hold, giving birth to an infrastructure of mills and cooperatives. A new co-generation plant in Williams burns waste rice hulls to make electricity. Freighters take on rice bound for Hawaii, Turkey and Morocco at a river port in West Sacramento.

Colusa, on a lazy river bend 50 miles north of Sacramento, is an outpost of Middle America built with rice money. A stately old courthouse and a square of green lawn anchor the center of town. Graceful shade trees and expansive homes built by old farming families line the streets.

Old rights to the river gave rice farmers a better supply of water than the corporate farms south in the San Joaquin Valley. Then Shasta and Oroville dams were erected to smooth out the river's natural extremes. Instead of spring floods and summer trickles, the river delivers a gentle all-year flow. With the river more reliable, rice growing flourished.

But rice also became as beholden to California's water-distribution bureaucracy as any Southern California city. Water districts have cut deliveries to rice farms in the drought, and rice acreage has fallen from 425,000 in 1988 to about 275,000 this year. Other crops suffered more, but rice began to be talked about as expendable. This year, state officials came asking rice farmers to sell their water to help cities through the drought.

So far, though, few rice farmers have gone along with the state's request to help stock the "water bank" for cities. Rice uses less water than cotton -- and nobody eats cotton, the farmers say. Lasers that allow precise leveling of fields, and new strains of less-thirsty rice plants, have also made the farms more water efficient. It now takes 25 gallons to grow a serving of rice here, compared to 36 gallons in earlier decades, the industry says.

The water bank has met resistance out of fear it would set a precedent -- that cities could grow at will and later use the power of their superior numbers to tap the rice fields for water. "In a genuine human emergency, absolutely," said McGeoghegan. But not to help Southern California add new suburbs, fill swimming pools and plant gardens. "Everybody's looking to gore somebody else's ox, it's as simple as that," said McGeoghegan. "Rice looks like an easy mark. It's visible."

In Richvale, up the river in Butte County, a cluster of white-painted elevators and tanks announces Lundberg Family Farms, the area's biggest employer. The family rice business began in 1937 and now includes three brothers and a gaggle of sons, producing mostly organic rice products. "Water is the biggest concern I have about the long-term viability of farming," said Bryce Lundberg, 30, the third generation of Lundbergs to grow rice at Richvale. "I would like to stay in the rice industry. My family has built a name. But if you take away the water, you've taken away what makes the land valuable."

His father, Harlan, 57, is a former Peace Corps volunteer who uses a homespun nature to promote the family's products -- rice cakes, sweeteners, cereal and rice for cooking -- as health food. "Rice is one of the premier foods in the world," says Harlan Lundberg. "I don't think there's a food any healthier. It's the major crop in the world, not because it's easy to grow, because it's so nutritious."

Harlan says people who think rice competes with the city for water misunderstand nature. The water goes back in the Sacramento River, seeps into the ground, evaporates to become rain again someday, or gets converted into food. "I don't have much sympathy for those people," he said. "The water -- all we do is slow it down a little bit. The mega-problem really is population. There's got to be some way to regulate population."

The tension between rice and growth is not just over water. Environment and health groups have sued the rice industry over the smoke that rises every autumn from burning straw in the rice fields. Studies are trying to learn if the smoke is a cause of an abnormally high lung cancer rate in Sacramento, one of the state's fastest-growing areas.

The cry against rice rose after the 1986 publication of "Cadillac Desert," an indictment of Western water practices by Reisner. He detailed the case again last year in a second book, "Overtapped Oasis." Then this year -- surprise -- Reisner softened his bite, much to the relief of rice growers. "Irrigating pasture in California is a lot more crazy than rice," said Reisner, a consultant for the Nature Conservancy, who now thinks limited rice growing is good for Northern California. Little else can grow well in the Sacramento Valley clay, Reisner said, and farmers made a persuasive case to him that the rice fields are good for the dwindling Central Valley winter bird migrations. "They convinced me the crop is important for water fowl," Reisner said.

© Los Angeles Times 1991