Drought’s latest effect? Sacramento Valley farmers fallow rice land

A number is written in red marker on a white board in Ed Sills’ office in Pleasant Grove. It marks the day, May 5, when the last rain fell on the 3,000 acres where Sills grows organic rice, beans and popcorn.

In a normal year, Sills gets allocated 2 acre-feet of water per acre from the South Sutter Water District. This year he is getting half that. He has responded by switching 190 acres of his rice land to popcorn and dry beans, which will require less water.

“I’ve increased my popcorn growing by 30 percent,” he said.

Sills isn’t the only rice farmer taking land out of rice production. At the 5,000-acre Montna Farms in Sutter County, more than 1,800 acres are being fallowed – a third of the operation, said managing partner Nicole Montna Van Vleck.

“This has never happened in the last 20 years,” she said.

The Montna farm faces stark water reductions from the Sutter Bypass system. That water is divvied up by the state’s Water Resources Control Board, and Van Vleck is expecting that allocations could be as low as zero this year.

“What we’re hearing is that this is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ situation,” Van Vleck said. “This means that a third of our acreage won’t get planted.”

Across the Sacramento Valley, as much as 100,000 acres of the roughly 566,000 acres devoted to rice in the state last year will likely be fallowed this year, said James Morris, spokesman with the California Rice Commission.

For Sills, the fallowing will mean he will take a 10 percent hit on his business this year, although the switch to other crops means he won’t have to lay off any of his 20 workers.

On the consumer end, anticipation of a rice shortage has nudged prices up 10 percent to 15 percent, though the movement has been small enough that shoppers probably won’t notice, said Chris Crutchfield, president of American Commodity Co., a rice marketer based in Williams.

The price of rice consumed in the Sacramento region does not depend heavily on what is going on locally, since the rice sold here comes from all the major rice growing regions in the United States, Crutchfield said. Last year, 22 percent of the rice harvested in the U.S. came from California. Of that, 95 percent was harvested in the Sacramento Valley.

Additionally, the rice being sold currently is from the 2013 crop, which turned about to be one of the largest in recent memory, he said.

“When you take it in the whole 100,000-acre reduction in the Sacramento Valley, while it is having a huge economic and environmental impact, the actual overall affect on the price of rice to the retail consumer or at a restaurant will be minimal, if at all,” said Crutchfield.

Not all the effects of drought on rice farms are financial ones, however.

When fields are taken out of production, farmers likely won’t flood the fields after harvest, which is done in the winter. That means fewer surrogate wetlands for the millions of waterfowl and other birds migrating through the region on the Pacific Flyway.

“We’re very invested in providing waterfowl habitat,” said Van Vleck. “There is going to be a huge loss of valuable habitat this year.”

Van Vleck said that Montna will try to get water on some of the fallowed acres. But without the decomposing rice straw left after harvest, they won’t provide the rich stew of decomposing organic matter that attracts the invertebrates that birds depend on for food.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee