California rice takes top spot in international competition

Bags of California Calrose rice are stacked on pallets destined for the Middle East. Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009.
Bags of California Calrose rice are stacked on pallets destined for the Middle East. Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009. rpench@sacbee.com

A rice variety developed and grown in California has won the top award in a worldwide competition, and the state’s drought may have had something to do with it.

The Calrose variety – widely grown in the Sacramento Valley – was picked Oct. 30 as the world’s best rice variety among a field of 25 at the seventh annual World Rice Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It’s the first time California has been the sole winner of the top award, which judges rice based on flavor and grain texture.

Calrose is a medium-grain variety that was put into production in 1948 and is highly regarded in the international rice industry. This year, a panel of international experts and chefs chose the variety over the previous three-time winner from Cambodia, a Thai Fragrant variety.

Ninety-seven percent of California rice is grown in the Sacramento Valley, with about 80 percent of the regional crop consisting of Calrose rice.

“It feels good to have a major win,” said Greg Van Dyke, who represented California at the conference. Van Dyke is a fifth-generation farmer who grows rice on 2,500 acres in Pleasant Grove 20 miles north of Sacramento.

“It feels good to win because we live in the highest cost production part of the world to grow rice in – plus we’ve had to deal with a lot of challenges,” he said.

The win comes amid a multiyear drought in California that has shrunk the number of acres devoted to rice cultivation, from 567,000 acres harvested in 2013 to 434,000 in 2014. This year’s total harvested rice acreage will fall further to 411,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture says the state exported $704 million worth of rice in 2013, the last year for which figures are available. The top countries buying California rice were Japan, South Korea and Jordan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates California exported $644 million worth of rice in 2014, about a third of total national exports.

Van Dyke said he was forced to fallow 30 percent of his acreage this year after the South Sutter Water District told him his allocations from the Far West Reservoir would be cut in half.

However, the drought, and the dry weather that came with it, could have helped the California rice variety win the top award, Van Dyke said.

Dry weather let farmers start their work in the fields earlier during the spring and also diminished moisture in the air, which Van Dyke said improves the overall texture of the rice grain.

“I believe this is why we finally beat the Cambodians this year,” Van Dyke said.

James Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission, said other farmers have also credited the drought with helping to produce great rice.

“I’ve heard really good things about the crop this year,” Morris said. “Several growers have had good yields this year, and I have heard from several growers that the rice they were able to plant was of very good quality.”

Moderate growing temperatures over the season without harvest rainfall or dry north winds have also helped the Calrose crop, said Kent McKenzie, director of the nonprofit industry group the Rice Experiment Station, where the Calrose variety was created.

“Extra attention by growers may also be a factor, but that is more of a side effect of the drought,” McKenzie said.

The station, based in Biggs in Butte County, has developed different rice varieties for the industry, with many of them grown in the clay-like soils north of Sacramento.

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz