California Rice

A few months ago I was walking through a Japanese grocer and saw the coolest little three cup rice cooker for sale next to its larger cousins on the shelves. It was shiny and new and I had to have it. Almost 42 years old and I have always cooked my rice on the stove top. And it never came out perfect, ever. Now I was confident that I would be able to get in on the highly guarded sushi rice game. With my new rice cooker, large bag of premium sushi rice and Tamanoi Sushinoko Sushi Flavoring (for the rice), I was of to the races. No sooner did I get home and start to rinse my rice, I read the bag of rice and noted that it was produced in California. How could this be so? I had just come from a Japanese grocer, why on Earth did they just peddle me some California rice to make my sushi with?! Without any hesitation I started to do a little research and found some interesting information. One of the first things I repeatedly came upon was that it’s said that every piece of sushi made in America is made with California rice. That’s a pretty tall order to fill considering that the rice is produced in such a small geographical area. California undoubtedly takes their rice farming very seriously, they have come up with some pretty incredible innovations too, increasing production, revenue and making a positive impact on ecology.

The Basics

For starters, rice is known botanically as Oryza sativa and is considered a grass, as are barley, oats, rye, and wheat. Unlike these grains, rice in non-gluten grain. Making it easy to digest for those with gluten allergies.

Primary rice types are the indica and japonica varieties. Indica rice’s are characterized by fluffy, separate kernels when cooked and are typically long grain rice’s that grow near the equator. The indica rice kernel is four to five times longer than it is wide. Japonica rice’s, which fare well in temperate and mountainous regions, usually are the medium and short grain varieties. The medium grain kernel is two to three times longer than it is wide.

Japanese Rice refers to a number of short grained cultivars of Japonica rice including ordinary rice and glutinous rice.

The U.S. began exploring rice production in the early 17th century in Virginia and South Carolina. Mentioned as far back as 1609 in Virginia.  California began rice production in the early 20th century. More specifically in the town of Richvale in Butte County.

California gets into the Game

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 created a high demand for food and agricultural items to support the large influx of immigrants from all over the world. The largest groups were Chinese workers hired by the mines and railroad. The diet of this group spurred interest in growing rice rather than importing it from China and Japan.

In California, production is dominated by short and medium grain japonica varieties, including cultivars developed for the local climate, such as Calrose, which makes up 85% or more of the state’s crop. The broad classification of rice grown includes long grained rice, medium grained rice and short grained rice.

Farming was heavily promoted by the Department of Agriculture to address the demand for food in California. USDA soil specialist W.W. Mackie discovered that a medium grain rice from Japan called Kiushu could be successfully grown.

Today, the state of California hosts over 2500 family rice farms and mills.

97% of California’s rice crop is grown in the communities of the Sacramento valley

17 varieties of rice grow in California, the most successful are Calrose, Koshihikari and Akitakomachi. Other varieties include, Arborio, Jasmine, Basmati, and colored bran rice like black and mahogany japonicas. California rice fields are among the most productive in the world, with average yields of more than four tons of rice per acre.

Calrose rice, the California powerhouse, originated and was developed at the Rice Experiment Station near Biggs, California by Jenkins W. Jones and Loren L. Davis and released to California growers in 1948. Since then, over the years improved new varieties with Calrose grain cooking and processing characteristics were released. Although the original variety is no longer grown, Calrose has become a name recognized in trade and the market place for the California type medium grain rice. Up to 80% of the California rice crop is Calrose rice making it the most recognized variety of California rice in the United States. In the Pacific islands of Hawaii and Guam more than 90% of the rice consumed is Calrose rice.

Despite it being known around the world, roughly 55% of rice grown in the state of California remains in the U.S. and is sold for use as table rice (56%), frozen and ready to eat meals, cereal (18%), beer, and sake production (12%) and pet food (12%) and other industrial uses (1%)

California as a world producer

World rice production in 2018/2019 was at 499.16 million tons according to the USDA

China produces the most weighing in at nearly 147 million tons, followed by India at 115 million tons, Indonesia @ 36.5 million tons, Bangladesh @ 35.8 million tons, Vietnam @ 28.3 million tons, Thailand @ 18.5 million tons, Philippines @ 12 million tons, Japan @ 7.8 million tons, Pakistan @ 7.5 million tons, Brazil @ 7.1 million tons. United States ranks roughly 12th on the list of top producers with 5.86 million tons produced.  Top California rice export markets are Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Middle East.

Rice fields make great habitats

California rice fields provide habitat and nourishment for approximately seven million ducks and geese migrating along the Pacific Flyway each year. The California rice lands also provide more than 300,000 acres of equivalent wetland habitat for 230 wildlife species.

The Planting and Harvesting process

The planting process begins in March when the fields are leveled with precision laser guided equipment, fertilizer is added and shallow furrows are then rolled into the field. By early April the field is ready to be planted with rice.

Water is then run into the fields through a series of irrigation canals to a depth of five inches. Rice seed is then pre-soaked and loaded into specially equipped planes. Flying along at speeds of 100 miles per hour the planes release the seed and plant the fields from the air.  The heavy rice seeds sink into the furrow and begin to grow.

Rice takes about four to five months to reach maturity. The farmer maintains a five-inch depth of water throughout the field while the rice is growing to its mature height. On average, each acre of seeded field will yield over 8,000 pounds of rice.

The harvesting process is made up of and includes reaping, stacking, handling, threshing, cleaning and hauling. All of these processes can be done individually by hand or mechanized processes. Alternatively, a harvester can be used to do all of these items simultaneously.

Reaping is a term used for cutting the mature panicle sand straw above ground. Threshing is separating the patty grain from the rest of the cut crop. Cleaning is done by removing immature, unfilled, non grain materials.

Published by Jason Stroh

I am a Los Angeles based food stylist and chef

One thought on “California Rice

  1. Even if you wern’t my son I’d say what an adventure this was to read your article. Had no idea you could grow rice in the US. And so many varities. Great job J. Shared it on my facebook


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