Rice harvest underway in Sacramento Valley
by Ching Lee

September 19, 2012 12:06pm
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•  OK harvest expected

•  ‘I think the crop is going to be average’

As rice harvest begins to ramp up this month, California farmers say they expect to have a good crop, although yields may not be as remarkable as they would like, given the late start to planting this spring.

A small percentage of fields are already harvested, but the good majority of farms will be starting this week and likely run into November, according to University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisors Chris Greer and Luis Espino.

"It looks like it's going to be an OK harvest," says Butte County rice farmer Michael Arens. "The weather seems to be good. I think the crop is going to be average. I don't think it's going to be anything spectacular."

He planted his first field in mid-May and says he expects to begin harvest next week. But stand establishment was tough this spring, he says, because late-season rains delayed planting, which typically causes a drop in yields.

"I think our production is going to be what it's going to be," says Mr. Arens, who grows rice in Richvale. "Everything is done. We can't change that. Hopefully, harvest will be easy, with good weather."

Mr. Greer, a farm advisor who covers Yuba, Sutter, Placer and Sacramento counties, agreed that yields should be "somewhat average" this year, although some fields may see more losses if the plants were flowering during a stretch of hot weather in August, when temperatures topped 100 degrees.

The heat spell also helped to control the fungal plant disease rice blast, which has been prevalent this year—although not as bad as the last two years, he notes. With weather cooling down, more blast is now showing up, but it's too early to tell how much of an impact it will have on overall yields, Mr. Greer says.

"In a year like this, unless we start getting heavy rains, (harvest) is probably going to turn out fairly good," he says.

This year marks the state's 100th rice harvest, according to the California Rice Commission. Rice production is forecast at 47.3 million hundredweight, up 2 percent from 2011, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The yield forecast is 8,400 pounds per acre. The state is expected to harvest some 563,000 acres of rice this fall, down from 580,000 in 2011.

Mr. Greer says the amount of reduced acreage is not unusual, as the state has fluctuated between 500,000 and 575,000 acres in the last 10 years. Some of the lost acreage could be attributed to ground that was fallowed in favor of water transfers, such as in Butte County, or a switch to other crops, he says.

George Tibbetts, a Colusa County rice farmer, says he typically likes to keep all his ground in production and stick to his regular crop rotation, which includes sunflowers, safflower and tomatoes.

He says he will modify his rotation schedule a bit and keep a field in rice a year or two longer to take advantage of higher prices, but generally about two-thirds of his farm is devoted to rice. Not all growers are able to do the kind of rotation he does, however, because their ground may not be suitable for other crops, Mr. Tibbetts notes.

If the price outlook for rice is particularly strong during planting time, he says, some growers may bring marginal ground into production. But the outlook this spring wasn't necessarily too bright or too gloomy, he notes.

"The price has been rather volatile," Mr. Tibbetts says. "Right now, the price outlook for the crop you harvested last year is a lot lower than it was a few years ago, but not as bad as it was five or six years ago, so it's kind of in between."

Mr. Tibbetts says his crop is mature enough now to harvest, but he's waiting for the moisture level to come down so he can avoid high drying costs, and that may take until late this week. That puts him about a week behind, even though he planted his crop in early May, which is his normal planting window. He also says he did not experience any significant weather issues this summer that would adversely affect his crop.

"It could still be a good crop. It could be average," he says. "I won't know until we get out there and cut a few loads."

Matt Tennis, who farms rice in Chico and is about two weeks away from harvest, says although temperatures during pollination were a little hotter than he would like, weather conditions on the whole this summer were "pretty benign."

He says he did have a harder time with weeds this year, noting that growers are now battling increasingly tough weeds that have few materials available to control them. He says while he was "mostly" able to manage the weeds this year, it got expensive.

Farm advisor Mr. Espino, who covers Glenn, Colusa and Yolo counties, says UC researchers confirmed last year that smallflower umbrella sedge, a common weed in rice fields, has become resistant to one of the main herbicides that growers use to attack it. While the resistant strain is not yet widespread, Mr. Espino says the problem weed is a concern, as "we'll probably see more of it as time goes by."

Mr. Tennis says farmers not only need all the tools that are available now to control weeds, but new ones as part of their arsenal.

"We need to encourage innovation," he says. "That means chemicals that can safely control weeds. It also means more science that can produce hardier varieties of rice that can stand up to these various challenges—weather and threat from weeds."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert, a publication of the California Farm Bureau Federation where this article originally appeared. It is used here with permission.)

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