rice crop farmers

Soggy Fields slow Start of Rice Planting

Taylor Hillman Field & Row Crops

Time is running out for California rice farmers whose fields remain too wet for planting.

All last month, the Sacramento Valley should have been buzzing with tractors working the ground in preparation for seeding. Instead, soggy weather kept many farmers twiddling their thumbs or biting their nails as they waited for their fields to dry out.

“It’s really getting nerve-racking at this point,” Yuba County farmer Keith Davis said.

Most of the ground he farms on the east side of the valley was “still too wet to do anything with,” he said, so he’s focusing on a small area where the soil is lighter and he can begin turning it. But his fields with red clay dirt in the lower foothills were “extremely wet” and needed more drying time.

Spring rains have caused planting delays in the past, Davis noted, but they were usually followed by drying periods long enough for farmers to get in the field. This year, fields were so saturated that growers didn’t have that opportunity, he added.

Typically, his fields would have been planted by May 15, but Davis said that date is “almost unreachable now.” The final planting date for California rice is June 1, after which farmers with crop insurance could seek compensation for prevented planting. Trying to plant after June 1 is considered risky because it pushes harvest into the rainy fall season, which could hurt yield and quality if the crop gets soaked.

Mike DeWit, who farms rice in Yolo and Sutter counties, said he’s tried planting as late as June and “got burned,” so he won’t take that gamble again. Without crop insurance, he said he’d be “real stressed out and a mess right now,” as the indemnity helps pay the rent when he can’t grow a crop. In a down market year such as this, he said “it’s not a bad option to have.”

He already knows he won’t be able to plant 50 percent of his acreage—land in the Yolo Bypass that’s still underwater. On his drier ground, he started some field work last week; normally, he would have started on April 1. If weather cooperates, he said he hopes to get his first field planted by the week of May 22.

“We’re going to be under the gun and may bunch the planting up more than we’d like to,” he said.

The bunching could result in other delays. Irrigation districts with small canals and outlets are not able to deliver water to fields all at once, Davis said, noting that it could take 20 to 30 days to put water in fields before they could be seeded. Farmers may also be standing in line for agricultural planes that seed their fields. On the back end, DeWit said delayed planting could result in a logjam at rice dryers in the fall if farmers try to harvest at the same time.

California farmers are expected to plant 539,000 acres of rice this year, down from 541,000 in 2016, according to a prospective plantings report released in March by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department reported that zero acres had been planted in the state as of the week ending April 30.

With the adobe clay soil he farms in Butte County, grower Matt Tennis said he’ll be lucky to get 50 percent of his crop planted this year. He’s already made the decision to switch to growing a short-season variety because of the narrow planting window he has left. As of last week, his ground was still too wet to do any work and he said he likely wouldn’t start until the end of this week.

Field preparation takes time and patience, he said, as several passes are needed to work up the soil, level the ground and produce a good seed bed.

“We don’t have an unlimited number of tractors sitting in a barn ready to go out and get it all done,” he said. “By the time we can get in the ground, we would’ve lost one month.”

With the late start, Tennis said he wants to plant as much as he can, but conditions must be right so he could do a good job.

“If you cut corners and slam your crop in, you’re going to have greater weed pressure and undesirable yield,” he said. “This is not the kind of year where I’d want to cut corners in planting my rice crop.”

Not all areas of the valley were as sopping wet. In Colusa County, farmer Mark Sutton has made some progress, having started working his fields early last week. He said he expects to be finished planting by the second week of June, as long as he doesn’t have any more rain. Unlike growers farming along the river bypass and dealing with floodwaters, Sutton said his biggest problem has been with spring rains, but he noted most of his fields are now dry enough.

“We’re a week behind, but it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Farmers who plant earlier varieties are in a lot worse spot than we are, because their planting window is right now.”

Because a late-planted crop is usually also smaller, Sutton said he hopes prices will improve to counter what may be lower yields this fall.

If the weather warms up and stays dry from here on out, Glenn County grower Larry Maben said he thinks he can have everything planted by June 1. His fields are drying slowly and he’s about two weeks behind schedule.

“It will definitely affect the yield, but it’s not necessarily going to be a tragedy,” he said. “I’ve gotten good yields planted late in the season.”

With the current weak market, Maben said farmers are “pretty close to break-even” at this point. Those who watch their production costs “should be able to perhaps turn a profit,” he said, but much will depend on whether they have reduced yields.

Because it’s so late, Maben said he expects some farmers will skip a step or two to try to save fuel and time.

Rather than waiting for one field to dry out, Davis, who also grows wild rice in Yuba County, is allowing wild-rice volunteers to establish in that field as an experiment. He said he’s never done this before and is not sure it will produce a viable crop, but with his planting window closing, he said if the experiment works, he will be better off than planting nothing on that ground.

Despite their early struggles, farmers agree their year may still turn out fine. Get some 75- to 80-degree temperatures and some north winds blowing, and fields will dry out quickly, Davis said.

“We could have an ideal growing season from today until the middle of September and have perfect harvesting conditions, and then nobody will even think about the planting date,” DeWit said.

Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation. Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.