Calculating the value of rice in more than dollars

Tundra swans take flight in a flooded rice field with a view of the Sutter Buttes in the background off Kimball Lane in Marysville in November 2012.
Tundra swans take flight in a flooded rice field with a view of the Sutter Buttes in the background off Kimball Lane in Marysville in November 2012. Sacramento Bee file

The value of California’s rice harvest in 2012 was $770 million. The almond harvest’s worth was $4.3 billion.

But which is more valuable: a rice field or an almond orchard? Which is more worthy of our vital resource, water? The answers are not so obvious.

The drought has prompted discussion about the best use of water for our state’s farms. Some people are suggesting that permanent crops such as nuts and grape vineyards somehow are more important than rice, wheat or alfalfa, which are planted and harvested annually.

I say, don’t pit one crop against the other. In reality, there is great value in seasonal crops. A rice plant is every bit as significant as a nut tree. There is room for us all in the nation’s largest farm state. With wise stewardship, there can be sufficient water.

Our family rice farms and mills have significantly benefited this state for more than a century. The impacts are far greater than many people realize.

Let’s look at frequently voiced beliefs about agricultural use of water. One is that permanent crops are more vital than annual crops.

At its core, this argument holds that, somehow, annual crops are less important than orchards or vineyards due to the relative difficulty of fallowing an acre of trees or vines. The immediate cost of not planting and therefore not irrigating each crop may be different, but the long-term impacts are never addressed.

How permanent, for example, is a rice mill or a dryer? What about the families that have farmed a crop for generations? Are communities that have grown up around regional crops considered? Are all these somehow less permanent than neat orchard rows?

Significant decreases in annual crops in the Sacramento Valley will result in fundamental loss of processing facilities and the jobs they support every year. Vibrant communities of multigenerational farming families will also be lost.

One simply has to look at the transition away from sugar beets, hops and other crops that once inhabited the Valley for an indication of the permanent impact. Once they exited, the processing facilities, the jobs and the communities left with them.

A second argument has to do with the highest and best use of water, and the notion that the economic value of a crop is the only number that should be calculated when considering how and where to allocate water.

Economics certainly are important to keeping a farm viable. But the value of a crop is only one measure. We also should consider the environmental value of water used to produce food.

Fully $2 billion of habitat is created simply as a result of growing rice. You can see the bounty any time you drive over the Yolo Causeway, or head north from Sacramento to Sutter County, especially this time of year.

Rice lands provide nearly 60 percent of the food needed for ducks and geese that annually migrate into the Sacramento Valley.

A pure economic valuation of water also separates completely the resource from the landscape where it is found. The verdant Sacramento Valley supports agriculture, the Pacific Flyway and four runs of salmon.

In a narrow economic assessment, water is treated not as a common resource but as a line item on a balance sheet to be maximized.

The future of water use in agriculture does not lie in simplistic assertions or pitting one crop against another.

Instead it will be found in an honest discussion of how to increase water storage above ground and below, and how to further enhance conservation in our cities and on our farms.

Importantly, we must recognize that water is not a resource to be exploited, but rather one to be valued for the breadth of riches it brings to the environment, farms and our communities.

Tim Johnson is president and chief executive officer of the California Rice Commission.