WILLOWS, Calif. — Rice growers in California are in the midst of a harvest that has been challenged in many ways by weather.
Farms got off to a late start with planting last spring as fields remained muddy from one of the wettest winters in the state’s history, then blistering summer heat caused more problems.
On Larry Maben’s farm in the middle Sacramento Valley, rice plants were laying on the ground instead of standing as they usually do at harvest, because heat waves this summer caused the plants to grow quickly, he said.
As such, harvesting the grain is a more methodical process.
“The rice is down flat, which makes it slow,” Maben said. “You just take it as easy as you can.”
The heat spells — which peaked at above 110 degrees several times this summer — also appear to have taken a toll on yields by hindering pollination, growers said. Maben thinks his yields are off 10 to 20 sacks an acre, as he normally produces between 90 and 100 sacks per acre, he said.
Adding to the slow pace has been morning dew that prevents crews from getting out with harvesters until midday, when the plants have dried, he said.
The rice harvest typically peaks in early to mid-October, but some growers are still racing to catch up after late spring rains held up field work. Rice is planted in water, but growers must first drag the fields with tractors so that water levels remain even.
As it was, growers were scrambling to meet an unofficial June 1 deadline for getting their rice seed down, as planting any later would likely push harvests into the rainy season.
Some growers ended up leaving some fields fallow. Last month the National Agricultural Statistics Service lowered its estimate to 462,000 productive acres this year, down from the 539,000 planted acres the agency had projected in the spring.
As of last month, NASS expected growers to produce 40,304 hundredweight of all rice varieties combined this season, down from 47,394 hundredweight from 536,000 harvested acres in 2016.
Maben is about one-third of the way through his fields. Marysville grower Charley Mathews has had to stop and start because some of his fields were still green, but he hopes to finish before the rains come.
“We should be” finished in time, said Mathews, a USA Rice Federation executive committee member. “We’ve got a good weather outlook, so that helps. It’s coming along.”
Mathews has been told by other growers that the earliest plantings are struggling the most with yields, he said. Whether a plant is affected by high temperatures depends on where it is in its growth, he said.
“If the heat hits at a certain stage of the plant, you could have heat-induced blanking, which is rare,” Mathews said. “What I’m hearing is the later-harvested yields are improving.”