By TIM HEARDEN
WILLOWS, Calif. - Farmer Larry Maben has his ground for growing rice, and he has his orchards producing olives for oil. And the two don't really mix.
"In this business, if you're on rice ground, you're pretty much on rice ground," Maben said.
The hard, flat soils that make up much of the rice acreage in California's Sacramento Valley aren't suitable for much else.
The irrigation doesn't really work for row crops, Maben said. You could plant trees, but "your neighbors would hate you because of the fertilizer," he said.
Also, orchards near rice fields would be an obstacle for planes that fly over and drop rice seed, he said.
These are some of the reasons California rice industry representatives aren't too concerned about a nationwide drop in rice acreage from 2012, they say.
According to a USDA plantings report, growers nationwide intend to plant a little more than 2.61 million acres of rice, a 3 percent drop from the nearly 2.7 million acres planted last year.
Meanwhile, corn and soybean plantings have been on an upward trend since 1993. Corn acreage nationwide has risen from just under 92 million in 2011 to an anticipated 97.3 million this year, the USDA reports.
The trends have prompted media reports that some growers in the South have given up on rice in favor of the two other crops, which are less labor intensive and are more lucrative of late.
However, some fluctuations in rice acreage are normal, said Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd, spokeswoman for the Arlington, Va.-based USA Rice Federation.
"It's actually pretty common for farmers to plant other crops, but overall we expect rice acreage in the United States to maintain at current levels or increase slightly," Fitzgerald-Redd said. "We don't see a long-term trend in reduction in acreage. We expect it to be relatively flat."
Farmers do make such decisions based on price trends, she said. But other factors have contributed to a drop in acreage, too, such as a lack of irrigation water in some areas of Texas and weather-related crop damage, she said.
Further, rice growers have been facing increased global competition from nations such as Thailand and Vietnam while domestic corn and soybeans have been at record prices, explained Marysville, Calif., grower Charley Mathews, chairman of the California Rice Commission. But it's rare that a grower will never go back to rice, he said.
To be certain, California has seen a drop in rice acreage, too - from 585,000 acres in 2011 to 550,000 acres this year, the USDA projects. However, corn acreage in California has decreased, too, from 630,000 acres two years ago to 560,000 acres this year.
Some rice acreage on the west side of the valley is suitable for rotating in other crops, such as tomatoes or wheat, Mathews said. But on much of the rice ground, the soil dries to a rock-hard surface, which would not be good for root growth, he said.
This might dissuade some growers who were thinking of converting to almonds or walnuts, which have also been lucrative lately.
"It's rice only," Mathews said. "I've actually seen a little bit of it (the planting of nut orchards), but what you'll get is marginal nut production. And those are more of a permanent crop and more of a long-term investment."
California Rice Commission: http://www.calrice.org/
USA Rice Federation: http://www.usarice.com/