Stephanie Taylor

California Sketches: Silos of the Valley


pen, pencil, acrylic on vellum
“Reflections” pen, pencil, acrylic on vellum Special to The Bee

On winter days, when fog shrouds the Central Valley, immense vertical structures emerge ghostlike from a horizontal world. On hot summer days, shimmering cylinders jut from the flat landscape. They stand like sentinels, up and down Highway 99 and Interstate 5, and we barely notice them.

I’ve always called them silos but didn’t know what they stored or what happens inside. Dale Davis, who joined a longtime Sutter County rice farming family in 1951, scolds me: “Those aren’t silos, those are dryers.” When I suggest that as architectural forms, they’re aesthetically impressive, she laughs. To her they’re not beautiful, just functional.

Silos, dryers, mills, warehouses, they are an integral connection between our fields and ports, between California resources and the global economy. They store, dry and process hundreds of products, from rice north of Sacramento to cement for oil wells near Bakersfield. Milo, corn, wheat, barley, alfalfa, sunflower, seed, hay and pond binder, silica, calcium chloride, gypsum, pet food and cat litter.

In West Sacramento, just south of Interstate 80, a processing plant repurposes walnut and almond shells into mulch. North of Sacramento, squat tanks and a warehouse that seem as large as a football field contrast with towering columns of cement and corrugated metal. A tangle of conveyance pipes, tubes, augers and funnels transport rice in ordered chaos.

A truck unloads green rice into a pit. Revolving buckets lift the grains to the top of a 186-foot elevator and drop the rice into conduits attached to 130-foot-tall tanks. I can hear the grains flowing, cascading. It’s a soft sound, like the pouring of sand.

Rice leaves the fields with a moisture content of 18 to 24 percent and must be dried to exactly 13.5 percent for maximum value and minimum spoilage. Propane fans surround each metal cylinder and blow warm air into and up through the rice. It smells wonderful, as if it’s just starting to roast.

Farther north, midcentury dryers contrast with new technology. From a levee across shallow water, silos appear upside down in reflections of fields flooded for winter birds and new rice seed.

In 1927, the first heated, continuously flowing rice dryer in California was installed in East Nicolaus, south of Yuba City, by an engineer and rice farmer from Italy. I’m attracted to its architecture, texture and rusting patina. Majestic heritage has outlasted function.

The owner of the neighboring market remembers that in the ’40s trucks brought rice from the fields in 100-pound burlap sacks to be opened by hand, dried, refilled, hand-sewn closed and shipped by rail. The rice dryer is a noble relic now, home to pigeons and history, a mere shadow of former service.

Understanding their function only enhances my appreciation of their form.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee