California Rice

Snow geese over harvested rice field

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.

Farmhand Risotto

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.

3/10/11 – Annie’s article  for step by step information on how to make risotto.

10 thoughts on “California Rice

  1. Ann – What a great, informative post, and glad to see it get shared by others as well! Love the opening photo, and now inspired to be more creative in cooking dinner tonight too!

    • Hi Joy,

      Thanks for dropping by and thanks for the compliments. The only thing about making that could be considered hard about making risotto is the constant stirring but if you think of it like painting a picture I think you’ll find it a pleasing task and you can eat the delicious results. You can’t say that about a painting.

  2. The history of rice growing in California is pretty interesting. I love risotto, easily my favorite rice, although sometimes I get a hankering for basamati. And of course, brown rice is full of goodness, something we should all eat on a regular basis.

    • Hi Bill,

      Funny I have lived around rice production for more than half of my life and didn’t even know about its history until I started poking around recently. I love California history. It doesn’t go way back in time but it’s definitely interesting.
      Definitely love brown rice. That’s mainly what I eat but I haven’t found a way to make a really good risotto with it so . . .

  3. I wasn’t aware the rice was grown in California. Your post was very interesting. Are the geese much of a problem to the crop?

    • Hi Sandy,

      The geese and other waterfowl who visit the fields each winter come after the crop is harvested. Fields are flooded after harvest for the benefit of migrating birds and to help decompose the rice stubble which used to be burned after harvest. Switching from burning to flooding provided clean air for both humans and animals and the flooding has provided habitat for millions of migrating birds. It’s a beautiful sight to see and I look forward to harvest each year because I know the birds will soon follow.

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. This information about where rice is grown in our country was unknown to me – so thanks very much, Ann! Lundberg – does that company farm in Sacramento or San Joaquin valleys? I have admired their dedication to organic and its attention to soil since the 1980’s – but seems like it’s an older company than that. Such a satisfying grain. And thanks so much for the risotto recipe – I was under impression one had to use that arborio type. Ate wonderful risotto at our Fano Pizzeria last week – they had put braised chunk of radiccio on top, and theirs had sausage, too. We still have the weather for this kind of warming, comfort food here, so I may try your recipe soon.

    • Hi CC,

      Lundberg Farms has been around since 1937, I think. They are located about an hour north of Sacramento, in Butte County. I really like their rice blends.

      I hope you try using the short grain rice for your risotto. If you do please let me know what you think of it. Wish I was coming your way soon I’d bring some rice to trade for some Chimayo ground chili.

      • Sounds like a great trade! We buy our red chile powder from our neighbors whose business is called Chile Hill and they get theirs from down south – it has no filler and is rich.

        I am not well-acquainted with California – do they call the area around Sacramento ‘the central valley?’ If I was from there I would be so proud of all that is produced in that area. So glad you are teaching us about it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s