Drought to cause drop in rice plantings

Tim Hearden
Drought will likely lead to fewer acres of rice planted this season in California's Sacramento Valley, which could impact the economies of rice-dependent communities.

WILLOWS, Calif. — Drought in California’s Sacramento Valley will likely reduce rice planting this spring, although growers have yet to determine how much.

With nearly a month to go before planting, growers are waiting to see how much rain will continue to fall, the degree to which they can rely on groundwater and whether prices are enough to offset added pumping costs, CEO Tim Johnson explained recently on the California Rice Commission’s blog.

“It’s hard to gauge because every water agency has different rules,” said Marysville, Calif., grower Charley Mathews, the rice commission’s immediate past president.

“It’s all over the board,” he said of the water growers expect from their water districts. “I have a friend of mine who’s at zero and expects to stay at zero. I hear a lot of 50 percent. It should have an impact on acreage.”

Fortunately, the price for medium-grain rice has risen on the expectation that fewer acres will be planted in California this year, so “if growers have water, they’ll plant rice,” Mathews said.

Grower Larry Maben expects to farm about 600 of his 800 rice acres here, he said. He’s in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, which expects to receive 40 percent of its annual federal water from the Sacramento River as a senior rights holder.

“I’ve got a couple of wells that I’m trying to get up and running” to augment the drastically reduced surface water, he said.

Rice producers planted about 550,000 acres last year and anticipated about 46.1 million hundredweight from their most recent harvest, up 2 percent from 2012, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Industry leaders fear a significant drop in acreage could devastate the economies of rice-dependent communities. The California Farm Bureau Federation cites a Texas A&M University study that found the state’s rice farmers and mills provided nearly 25,000 jobs and more than $5.4 billion to the state’s economic output in 2009.

Rice commission officials want state and federal water allocators to remember that rice fields contribute to valuable wetlands for Pacific Flyway waterfowl and shorebirds. Commission members Paul Buttner and Mark Biddlecomb, a regional operations director of Ducks Unlimited, blogged recently that about 57 percent of wetlands in the Sacramento Valley rely on rice drain water and about 60 percent of food for wintering waterfowl comes from flooded rice fields.

“It’s an important point,” Mathews said. “We always refer to ourselves as the environmental crop. … Hopefully when they do the allocations, they take into account the need for winter flooding.”

However, Maben is skeptical that the argument will make a difference.

“There’s too many other calls for water,” he said. “There will be enough rice planted that we’re going to have acreage for waterfowl and shorebirds. It’s just going to be on a more concentrated basis.”

Online

California Rice Commission: http://www.calrice.org



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