Drought puts California rice in a sticky situation

Rice grown at Montna Farms in the Sacramento Valley.

Flooded rice field at Montna Farms in the Sacramento Valley.

That sweet sticky rice that comes with your sushi likely came from California. The state grows almost all of the nation’s medium grain rice, and about half of it is exported.

And California's drought is expected to have a dramatic effect on rice production. Economists say the mere speculation of production losses is already driving up prices.

Ninety-seven percent of California’s rice is grown in the Sacramento Valley, including at Montna Farms, where a huge drag scrapers level fields in preparation for planting. Nicole Van Vleck says medium grain rice will grow here, which is perfect for sushi.  

“If you’re eating sushi rice in New York, or in Florida, or San Francisco you’re most likely undoubtedly going to be eating California rice,” says Van Vleck.

Van Vleck stands next to a water pump that’s flooding the field behind her.

“So this is water that’s coming from the Feather River. The Feather is just to the east of us, we divert out of the Feather,” she says.

Northern California farmers typically have plenty of water compared to those in the south, even during dry years. But not this year.

“This is the first time I know of that we cut back rice acreage because surface water allocations were cut so severely to water districts north of Sacramento,” says Dan Sumner, an agriculture economist at the University of California Davis.

Montna Farms has been in the Sacramento Valley for generations. But this is the first time a drought has caused so much uncertainty.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever had to deal with,” says Van Vleck. “Day to day, things change. Right now we are down 48 percent over last year.”

Rice farmers will leave 100,000 acres of their fields fallow. That’s a big deal. Van Vleck says medium-grain rice grows in just a few places around the world.

“California does export about half of their crop. And so if California is affected because of the drought, it all of a sudden changes the price of medium grain substantially,” she says.

Sumner has already seen the price increase.

“Farmers were getting between $15 and 20 for a 100 pound sack of rice,” he says. “It’s now up in the range of $25 or $30 -- or more.”

Customers have seen the price bump at Oto’s Marketplace in Sacramento, a store that specializes in Asian foods.

“A lot of the distributors and everybody went in increments. You don’t see a big price raise all at one time," says Russell Oto, the store’s general manager. “But by May or June it might go up a little bit more than what my prices are now.”

What worries rice farmers like Van Vleck the most is the possibility that California could see more dry years ahead.

“We have this wonderful system of customers that count on us each and every year,” she says. “I don’t know that they’ll all be able to be serviced this year. Someone else will fill that void. You might not get the customer back.”

And economists say that’s the danger. Suppliers might just start buying their rice elsewhere, like Australia or Arkansas. The drought may send a signal to the world market that California rice isn’t reliable.

About the author

Amy Quinton is a public radio reporter.

Flooded rice field at Montna Farms in the Sacramento Valley.

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