Q&A: Tim Johnson, California Rice Commission

A California rice field at sunset. (Photo: Sirisak Baokaew, via Shutterstock)

This September, 300,000 of California’s 550,000 acres of rice fields lay barren—over half the state’s rice crop. Instead of miles of soft green grasses swaying amid shimmering water, the state’s rice fields were cracked bare dirt, some crowded with weeds. “It is now just a wasteland,” a third-generation rice farmer told the San Francisco Chronicle. Three consecutive years of drought have had an unprecedented impact on the rice industry. What does the future hold?

We spoke with Tim Johnson, the Founding President and CEO of the California Rice Commission, to find out what rice growers are doing to adapt to climate change and how different interest groups are learning to approach water use more holistically in order to get the most out of this limited resource. 

It surprises many people that California is one of the world’s best rice producers. Rice first became a commercial crop here in 1912, and nearly every sushi roll made in the U.S. now uses California rice. Funded by industry and overseen by the State Department of Food & Agriculture, the California Rice Commission represents the people who grow and process this rice and supports their interests through legislation, regulation, education, and conservation.

The Valley’s fallow fields will cost approximately $500 million in lost revenue and threaten to upend a way of life.

Over 90% of the state’s rice is grown in the Sacramento Valley, the 165-mile-long lowland stretching through the state’s center, between Sacramento and Redding. What’s called the “rice belt” runs up the Valley’s center and produces five billion pounds of rice that amounts to a $5-billion-dollar industry and creates 25,000 associated jobs. Although rice is grown as far south as Fresno County, nine northern California counties contain most of the state’s rice farms: Butte, Yuba, Sutter, Placer, and Sacramento counties east of the Sacramento River, and Tehama, Glenn, Colusa, Yolo west of the River. Drought hit the west side hardest.

Rice is Colusa County’s largest crop, and it lost 84% of its acreage. Glenn County lost 75%. The rice farmers who get irrigation water from Lake Shasta got no more than 18% of their usual allotment this summer. Some received 0%. That main reservoir only contained half of its average volume. In the average year, when Lake Shasta is at least three-quarters full, farmers in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District would plant between 100,000 and 106,000 acres of rice. This year they planted 1,152 acres. The Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District is the largest irrigation district in the Sacramento Valley.

“We’re in unprecedented times,” grower Don Bransford told the Sacramento Bee in May, “and consequently, there is gonna be more land fallowed in Colusa and Glenn counties that has ever been fallowed.” Based in Williams, California, Bransford has grown rice for 42 years and has never faced this situation before. He called it the greatest water reduction ever.

The Valley’s fallow fields will cost approximately $500 million in lost revenue and threaten to upend a way of life. Crop insurance can only cover farmers’ losses for so many years, and this is California’s third consecutive drought year.

What is the long-term plan for ensuring a water supply for one of California’s most important crops?

Fallow fields unravel the farm economy: The seasonal workers, equipment dealers, mechanics, mill workers, warehouse workers, truck drivers, fertilizer vendors, stores that sell machine parts, stores that sell truck tires, the engineering firms that do metal work, the aviation businesses used to seed the crop from the air. 

In September 2022, Gov. Newsom signed the California Small Agricultural Business Drought Relief Grant Program bill, which will help many people in California’s rice industry endure the effects of the current drought by offsetting losses. This $75 million program provides $60,000-$100,000 grants to qualified small agricultural businesses, based on the amount of gross revenue or gross profit lost in 2022. This is an important step to help the people who put rice on our plates, but what is the long-term plan for ensuring a water supply for one of California’s most important crops? And to ensure that the millions of migratory Pacific Flyway birds have a place to feed and nest as travel through the Valley during the winter? As California’s climate changes, can rice change with it? 

Capitol Weekly: Looking at the rice industry from the outside, growing rice in a drier California seems like an insurmountable challenge. Can rice change with California’s climate?

Johnson: Absolutely. Agriculture has been looking at ways to reduce its water use for decades. Rice growers have adopted several very specific practices to use less water. About 30 years ago, we introduced semi-dwarf varieties into our breeding program, which only grow about three to three and a half feet tall, instead of five, and still produce high amounts of grain. So the same amount of water now produces more grain per acre. That’s significant. 

Our second big improvement is shifting our rice production north to the Sacramento Valley from the San Joaquin Valley. A rice paddy needs about five inches of water throughout the growing season. That’s best accomplished on heavy clay soils, where water doesn’t percolate away. San Joaquin Valley soils are largely looser, sandier soils and don’t hold water very well. The Sacramento Valley’s heavy clay soils do not percolate. That’s allowed us to save water. 

Technology also saves us water. Rice can’t use drip systems. Our fields need to be uniformly flooded, so we use GPS technology to perfectly level them so water stands five inches across the entire field. It can’t be six or seven on the far end of the field and only three or four on the other. Most farmers will re-level every year or every other year to make sure fields are flat, or to give them a very specific grade. Leveling, proper soil, and new varieties mean we use about 30% less water than we did in the late 1980s and ’90s. Almost every other crop in the Sacramento Valley has adapted water saving technologies right across the board. 

CW: What forces have caused rice farmers to do that?

Johnson: For most farmers, it’s economics. We were making these changes decades ago based on the economics of rice production in California, and when you have droughts like this one, you’re extra glad you can stretch the water you have further and grow more acres of rice than then you would have 30 years ago. 

CW: The scene still looks devastating, but those economic motivations give rice growers an environmental advantage when droughts like this hit? 

Johnson: They really do. California agriculture as a whole, and certainly rice, has a great history of being adaptive, being forward thinking, and not only adopting technologies but driving technologies that allow us to continue growing our state’s incredible crops, despite competition for land, water, and even clean air. 

CW: What new technologies will continue adapting rice to drier conditions?

Johnson: Satellite GPS technology has experienced a huge advancement during the last 10 years. We have GPS on everything from the airplanes that seed our fields to the tractors that level them, to the combines that harvest. They tell us exactly where our yields are, and how we use fuel and water to the greatest level of efficiency. 

As we address climate change, we can develop rice varieties that mature in a shorter period of time to maximize the plant’s utilization of water, fertilizer, and resources. Some rice varieties mature between 150 to 170 days. Well, what if you could make rice mature in 120 days and still produce a high amount of quality grains? Every year, our Rice Experiment Station looks at thousands of crosses of rice to find the best varieties for farmers, and farmers are interested in varieties that require fewer days in the field, so we can use our water more efficiently. 

Another promising way forward is more GPS technology that lets us monitor water levels in real time. Right now you have to physically visit the field twice a day to make sure you’re maintaining that standing water. What if you were able to have real-time field sensors tell you when the field needed a little more water or when you didn’t have to add more? Information technology that will allow us to keep adapting. 

Equally important, rice will continue to work with our partners in the state and federal levels, and our NGO partners, about how we can use that water in the rice field for multiple benefits to the environment and wildlife. Rice will always require water, but those five standing inches have real advantages during the growing season. About 90% of California’s wetlands are gone. We have public wetland refuges, but we also have about 500,000 acres of rice that provides fantastic habitat for birds and other wetland-dependent species. Rice replicates those wetlands. On the Pacific Flyway, 7 to 10 million ducks and geese spend the winter in California, and they’ve got food from leftover rice grain in the field and from the insects that live in those flooded fields in the wintertime. 

We’re also increasingly understanding how that rich soup of rice straw, water, and sunlight creates a huge amount of zooplankton that can feed juvenile salmon. So can we take that rich rice water out of the field and put it in the river when the small fish come by? Or let fish come into the rice on floodplains in the Yolo and Sutter basins, as they’d naturally do in floodwaters, to feed and grow? We have projects with U.C. Davis and Cal Trout, where we’re figuring out how the salmon that hatch in the upper reaches of the Sacramento River can get enough food in our fields to swim out of the Valley and into the ocean through the Bay. Our early research tells us that those salmon that leave rice fields are bigger, and more of them reach the Golden Gate Bridge.

A big piece of adapting rice to climate change is about managing that water for not just rice, but the greatest effect of the environment. That’s probably the most exciting, forward-thinking piece of the work the rice industry does. We have many partnerships that try to figure out how we can maximize that water and habitat value for the Pacific Flyway and for shorebirds, especially in a drought. We already know rice’s value to the giant garter snake, which is a federally listed species that lives in the agricultural ditches and fields and is every bit as dependent on rice fields as salmon are dependent on water in the river. Those are areas we’ll be focusing on in the next 10 or 20 years.

CW: When so many people, animals, and interests compete for this limited resource, everyone needs to release part of their agenda so water can service multiple functions for the greatest good?

Johnson: Right. We haven’t seen it as a competition for years. We’ve seen it as a way to collaborate on how the water that we use to grow our crop and to decompose our rice straw can have the greatest environmental benefit. That has provided huge value to the Pacific Flyway, to the juvenile salmon populations in the winter, to the giant garter snake, and those opportunities would not be in front of us if we saw water as a competition.

You’ve got to have the leftover rice grain in the fields during the wintertime. You need the rice straw to help with the carbon cycle, the generation of zooplankton, and you need to have the standing water on that landscape for other interests than rice. We are asking how we can grow a crop while truly maximizing these other landscape-level benefits for different life cycles of the salmon, for the giant garter snake, for the shorebirds and tricolored blackbird, in a thoughtful way. We have tried to replicate that natural floodplain wetlands that were once so prevalent throughout California, and certainly in the Sacramento Valley.

What I think we’re realizing now is that we had huge impacts over a 50% reduction in the amount of flooded rice fields that were available for the ducks and geese on the Pacific Flyway. We expect the fallow fields and lack of water will impact things like the giant garter snake and those wetland-dependent birds. Despite the drought’s impacts, we’re optimistic. I think we’ve got the right tools, an ideal crop, and the right approach to managing things on a landscape level for the maximum benefit of everybody in the state, whether you’re agriculture or urban or really focused on the environment.

CW: Instead thinking unilaterally, rice and other players have to really think about how everybody can get what they need, when there’s less water. 

Johnson: These things come into focus pretty clearly during the years when it doesn’t rain, unfortunately. But it’s really beyond that. It’s about how we manage the landscape in California moving forward—big picture. You saw in the San Joaquin Valley, where a lot of acres have come out of production due to groundwater and surface water issues. That’s no good for anyone. We really have a big vision in the Sacramento Valley—not just rice, but the water districts, the nonprofits, the state and federal agencies. We are asking: How can we maintain that mosaic on the landscape of managed wetlands, refuges, rice fields, other crops, and really do that here in a way where, at a landscape level, we can all get what we need and still provide the basis for that environmental benefit? 

CW: The wetlands are gone. Rice is their replacement, and we also have to eat. Rice offers one way to keep land feeding people, providing multiple values for habitat. But what’s the long-term vision for rice in the 21st century here?

Johnson: One of the discussions that we’ve been having concerns calculating the right number of rice acres that you need to keep in production in Sacramento Valley, the number you don’t want to go below. We have to approach that from a few perspectives. We’ve got a lot of small towns that rely on agriculture almost solely to turn their economic engines. Many small towns don’t have any other manufacturing, right? They need the crop. The other perspective is environmental: What’s the right number of flooded rice acres that we need every winter for the Pacific Flyway? How many acres does the giant garter snake need? Is it 400,000 or 425,000 acres? 500,000? Figuring out rice’s footprint is about finding that number of acres that we need to see in the Sacramento Valley year in and year out, to provide these benefits, wonderful food production, small towns jobs and economies, outdoor scenic value. Then we work on programs that would be able to support that. So does the approach involve things like agricultural easements, or what we call working lands, which are lands that remain in production, specifically for the societal and environmental benefits they provide? What about other ways to incentivize farmers to do additional practices on their farms that might cost them more money but would provide additional habitat? Can we do a kind of cost-share? As we work toward a future where we have the right number of rice acres in place to provide all those benefits, we need to be proactive, as opposed to letting the extreme pressures drive decisions that may not take all these factors into consideration most effectively. That way, when times like drought come, we can all be working towards the same important end, because it’s important for everybody.

CW: California has always had droughts. It’s a dynamic landscape. What’s changed is the severity and frequency of droughts. Recent winters have seen less snow and earlier thaws. That’s a complicated, different kind of climate patterns to plan for.

Johnson: You know, I think that the real realization that we’ve all come to, and it really doesn’t matter how you look at climate change, is that our margins are thinner than they used to be. We used to have lots of reservoir storage. We had more buffer. We had a lot of snow that was also a good buffer for drier years. And when we look at the climate now, well, that’s not going to be the case, right? We really do have to figure out how we’re going to survive these lean times and still be prosperous, not throw everything out the window, but see how we can still have a vibrant environment based on the Sacramento Valley’s agricultural land working, and working in concert with all of our conservation and environmental partners, state, federal and private, to make sure that we don’t just lose this incredible place, which is the Sacramento Valley, to climate change. We can do better. I’m convinced that with the partners that we have here, and the forward-thinking folks having discussions as a result of these three years of drought—and maybe a fourth year of drought—we can collaborate to come up with solutions that are broad and take into account multiple needs.

CW: So the pressures of this three-year drought has created conversations and movement that makes you feel hopeful about rice’s future in the long-term?

Johns: Absolutely. Nobody’s saying we don’t need rice in the Sacramento Valley. In fact, quite the opposite. We’re having conversations about how we can maximize the value of the number of acres that we flood during a drought. For years, we’ve been having discussions about what can we do for salmon, to replicate what we’ve done for the Pacific Flyway. What do the fish need? How do we get it to them in the rice complex, knowing that we’ve got farmers out there every day managing water that’s really good for the fish. And so yes, the decades-long discussions, combined with the pressure of this current drought, is really driving the vision about how we face a future where there’s going to be higher highs and lower lows, and how we manage that in a collaborative way.

The kind of collaboration we need includes a broad discussion, right? We’re not just talking about acre feet. We’re talking about impacts on the landscape, on rice, the environment, our communities, and economies. We’re working on a holistic discussion to get through these lean times. Similarly, we’re going to have times with more intense floods to plan for. We’re experiencing the dry side of climate change. Now, I fully expect that in the next five or so years, we’re going to have times where we talk about whether the levees will hold around those same communities suffering from drought, and we won’t be able to produce rice when there’s three feet of water in the Yolo bypass. I’ll tell you, that will absolutely be the case. So how do we keep an industry and our communities vibrant? The same way we keep the environment vibrant. We think that working rice fields provides for all that. Farmers who can farm are an economic activity, but they care about the environment and about their local communities. It’s all linked. I think that what the future holds for us is to appreciate that connected network and to work toward all of those ends.

CW: When the stakes are so high, that wholistic, systemic view seems essential to make sure every member of the system survives. That’s the way the future is telling us to think.

Johnson: That’s where our industry is thinking: What is the future look like with climate change? And, and what are the needs that we have as a region? As a Valley? And how do we all work toward that common vision with some different goals in mind, but ones that certainly are codependent on each other. You can’t have the environmental benefits without the rice production. You can’t have the rice production if you don’t have the supporting businesses. You can’t enjoy your sushi without the water farmers manage. Working together on that is the future of agriculture in the state. It is absolutely. It’s certainly the future of agriculture in the Sacramento Valley. My great hope, for the next 10 or 20 years, is that we also find ways to store more water, both underground and above ground, to give ourselves some additional margins as a buffer, too. I think we’re all realizing we need to find ways to create additional margins.

CW: The future is that rice fields must serve multiple functions. Too many outsiders think of California as a desert where no one should be growing rice. But California is not a desert. You know very well that you’re battling public perception as well as drought, this simplistic idea that it’s ag versus environment, or cities versus ag, as if we city slickers don’t want to eat rice. Our era needs for seemingly opposing parties to listen to each other and remain open to changing our opinions. 

Johnson: People are worn out by people just talking longer and louder about how they think they’re right. I believe that we’re going to be successful in the next 50 years, because we’ve changed, and because people like us, California Trout, and the Audubon Society have said, Let’s get past that and figure out what we can do, not what we can’t do. Most people I sit down and talk with—especially these conservation organizations in the NGO world—we have a lot of the same common goals. We want vibrant wildlife, we don’t want habitat to be further impacted and reduced. We want to be able to use water wisely. We want to be able to recycle it, how can we do all those things by working together? What we enjoy spending our time there? And in fact, that’s what we do. We tried to stay out of the fray and debate about, and we try to figure out how to have a conversation about ducks and fish and giant garden snakes and the cool stuff that makes life worth living, like sushi. That’s what it’s all about, right?

Editor’s Note: Aaron Gilbreath, author of “The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley,” is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.

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