When I drive to work in the morning I cross a three-mile bridge over a floodway. This floodway, or bypass, was created early in California’s history to carry water away from the Sacramento River during high flows and prevent the city of Sacramento from flooding and so far it has done its job. Within this floodway a wildlife area was created in 1997, the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. It provides habitat to hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that visit each winter as they travel the Pacific Flyway from Alaska and Canada down into California’s central valley. There are also rice fields alongside the wetland habitats within the bypass. They also provide food and shelter for scores of wildlife species. In fact, California ricelands provide habitat to 230 wildlife species, including more than 30 that have been designated as special status. Ricelands provide more than half of the food needed by wintering waterfowl in the Sacramento Valley.
Rice production also benefits Californians in a big way, it puts more than a billion dollars into our economy, it supports local communities and premium California rice is found in every piece of sushi made in America. So if you eat sushi, you’re eating rice grown right here in my back yard. So, how did rice get to be such an important crop? It certainly isn’t native to our area.
Like so many things in California you could say it all started when Sutter found gold in “them thar hills”. The California gold rush brought thousands of fortune hunters to California. Immigrants from all over the world came, the largest group were Chinese workers hired by the mines and the railroad. Rice was an important part of the Chinese diet and it had to be imported from China or Japan. European and Asian miners who didn’t fair well in their search for gold turned to their previous profession, farming. Some saw rice as a potential crop.
But early attempts to cultivate long grain rice failed time and time again. It wasn’t until 1908 that a USDA soil specialist discovered that a Japanese medium grain variety, Kiushu, was better suited to northern California’s climate and soil. The first successful crop was grown at the Belfour-Guthrie Ranch in the community of Biggs just after the discovery and by 1912 the rice industry was established. Today California’s rice industry flourishes in the Sacramento Valley and a small portion of the San Joaquin Valley. About half of the rice produced in California stays in the US, the rest is exported to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Middle East. Rice is also produced in two other principal areas of the United States: the Grand Prairie and Mississippi River Delta of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri and the Gulf Coast of Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
One of the things I like to make with California short grain rice is risotto. I’ve been using it for years now and prefer it to the more traditional Arborio rice from Italy. To me Risotto is a comfort food, much like mac-n-cheese.
Tonight I put together a risotto hearty enough to satisfy a hungry farmhand or just a very hungry gal looking for some comfort food. It combines short grain rice, chicken stock and vegetables fresh from this morning’s Farmers’ Market, fresh carrots, crimini mushrooms, onions and tender spring spinach. I also used celery and country sage sausage, a touch of fresh thyme from my garden, a pat of sweet butter, some baked garlic cloves I had on hand, and a sprinkling of grated Asiago cheese just before serving. Served with a simple mixed green salad and a glass of wine it was the perfect dinner on this rainy spring evening.
Additional information and recipes for California rice can be found at California Rice Commission.