Episode 13: Harvesting Rice with Kim Gallagher

Before your sushi roll or rice bowl, there’s a team effort to grow, harvest, mill and ship the fundamental ingredient – California rice.

Fall is a busy time in the Sacramento Valley, with GPS-guided harvesters bringing in more than four billion pounds of grain from a half-million acres of rice fields.  

In Colusa County, America’s largest rice-growing area, Kim Gallagher continues the family tradition of her father and grandfather. Rice quality and production continue to rise, thanks to hard work, forethought and amazing advancements in technology.

Rice varieties have improved. Through conventional breeding advancements, California rice varieties are semi-dwarf, meaning they are shorter and produce more grain than what was planted in past generations. Also, newer varieties can be harvested earlier in the season, helping avoid pitfalls of rain during harvest.

Global Positioning System, or GPS technology, has dramatically changed planting, fieldwork and harvest.

“I’m having a little bit of fun with that this year,” Kim said. “We have the technology where I’m actually taking these yields, putting them on my laptop, looking to see where the yields are as the harvester is going through and counting how many grains are going through that harvester. It can tell me where my weak spots are in the field and where my strong spots are – where I have high yields. Then I can go back the next year and make decisions based on that yield, what I want to do with fertilizer and where the weeds were. There’s so much information now available.”

Kim said she shoots for 10,000 pounds of rice produced per acre, which reflects the amazing growth in productivity in California rice farming during the last 20 to 30 years.

Erdman Dryer

Kim and her family run the Erdman Warehouse, which dries and stores more than 30-million pounds of rice each season. Rice is stored with its protective hull in place, which helps maintain its quality and shelf life before milling. 

The former Biology Teacher is not only enjoying farming, but marvels at the diverse ecosystem found in rice fields.

“That’s probably the whole piece of the puzzle that makes this job so satisfying,” she remarked.

”There’s an enormous amount–millions of waterfowl that come in – and they eat first of all the rice and then the bugs. They just love living in our rice fields during the winter. Even after the waterfowl leave, we have all of these shorebirds. This is such an incredible crop. How many things can we feed? There are just so many different wildlife species that make their home out here. All through the year, you can find something amazing out here.” 

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Episode Transcript

Kim Gallagher: Harvest is a lot like riding on a roller coaster. You never know what’s around the bend.

Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked for 30 years with farmers and ranchers in California to help tell their stories. And fall is a great time of the year here in the Sacramento Valley rice country. It’s time for harvest – the payoff of months of hard work. And I’m south of Grimes in Colusa County visiting with Kim Gallagher of Erdman Farms, and Kim how’s the harvest going so far?

Kim Gallagher: The harvest is going great. We just finished our first field and the yields were really good. So I’m optimistic. We are earlier than we imagined in our planting and our harvest this year. And that usually benefits our yields.

Jim Morris: That’s great to hear and smoke is something on people’s minds. We’ve had an unfortunate bout with smoke because of those catastrophic wildfires in our state. What if anything, does smoke do to the rice?

Kim Gallagher: Well, fortunately, when the smoke actually came into the valley, the rice was beyond the stage where it really would have caused damage to the yields. But at the end of our growing season, we let the water out of the fields. The water sits in the fields. It’s about three inches just to keep it growing all summer long. And at the end of the season, when the rice has matured, we let that water out of the field and then we let the ground dry up so that the harvester can get in. Usually, there’s a lot of sunlight. There can be wind and that ground can dry up really quick. But this year it did not happen. The smoke had covered everything. There was no sunlight, no wind. And the ground did not dry up as fast as we thought it would.

Jim Morris: What happens in the field during harvest?

Kim Gallagher: Rice is really not a very labor intensive crop. So our harvest looks a little bit different than what maybe most people would expect to see when they see a harvest, the newest harvesters have refrigerators in them. So, it’s kind of a fancy machine that you’re driving and it’s an expensive machine. What we’re seeing out here today is we have two harvesters that are harvesting this field, this rice is standing, which means that the rice hasn’t fallen over. So, we’re able to go in and use what is called a stripper header. It basically is like a vacuum with lots of fingers that picks the rice off of the straw and leaves the straw behind. We have two harvesters going through with the stripper headers and one bankout wagon that comes by and collect the rice from the harvesters and puts them in the trailers.

Jim Morris: And those bankout wagons enable the harvesters to be in the field all day, which is great. And it’s interesting. So many of the other crops are harvested at the crack of dawn and rice is more of a mid-morning type harvest start. Why is that?

Kim Gallagher: Yeah, rice, actually, we wait for the dew to be off of the straw before we can get in and harvest it all because of the moisture of rice and for these machines to be working well, you really want to be harvesting rice straw that is dry. It’s an incredibly abrasive straw and grain, and it can cause a lot of damage to these machines. It’s almost like sending sandpaper through. So, we’re trying to make sure that everything we do during harvest is not going to cause these machines to break down.

Jim Morris: What kind of readouts can a harvester driver get in the field about how much they’re harvesting, et cetera.

Kim Gallagher: Yeah, actually, I’m having a little bit of fun with that this year. So we have the technology where I’m actually taking these yields, putting them on my laptop, looking to see where the yield as the harvester is going through. And it’s counting how many grains are going through that harvester. It can tell me where my weak spots are in the field and where my strong spots are, where I have high yields. And then I can go back the next year and make decisions based on that yield, what I want to do with fertilizer and where the weeds were. So there’s so much information. Also, I want to point out that when I’m on one of these machines, if I don’t have the GPS, it does not look like a straight line. So, I am very appreciative of the GPS that allows me to drive in straight lines down the field, because I do not have the skill of driving straight without the GPS.

Jim Morris: That is rather important. I was wondering how difficult or easy they are to drive. And have you driven a bankout wagon as well?

Kim Gallagher: Oh yeah. That’s actually where I started as a teenager. One of our rites of passage in my family was driving the bankout wagon during harvest. And because rice is a fall harvest crop. It was actually safflower harvest where lots of grasshoppers and things like that. The bankout wagons that we had back then where the self-propelling bankout wagons and they didn’t have a cab in them. So, you can imagine we were, my sisters and I, had dust and bugs and all of that kind of stuff, but it was a good exposure to the whole harvest system. And now, our bankout wagon is a tractor that’s pulling a grain cart. So it’s a little bit nicer to have the air conditioning and the radio and all of those kinds of things, as opposed to the bugs and the dust.

Jim Morris: It’s fascinating how the technology has changed in such a short amount of time. And I’m a gentleman, so I’m not going to ask your age, but I know you’re much younger than me. So, you’re a young lady and things have changed not only with the gear that’s harvesting, but actually the rice as well and how tall it is, how productive it is. So tell me a little bit about all of the changes that have occurred that you’ve seen and heard from past generations.

Kim Gallagher: I love that question because so much of what we do out here, I really have to credit to the rice breeders because what we are able to do and the yields that we have now, that’s all them. They’ve created something easy for us, because, when my grandpa started farming, rice was taller than me. It was six feet tall and it was difficult to harvest, and it still can be very difficult to harvest, but we have a dwarf variety now, and it’s a lot easier to harvest a dwarf variety than one of those really tall original rice varieties. Also, just the season of harvest. So the breeders have been able to breed a rice that can have a timely harvest. So, we’re not in here really late when it’s raining. We’re in here earlier because of the varieties they’re growing, they can create shorter seasons and things like that. And so all of these things have just been a huge advantage for, especially California, where we have these great world-class quality rice varieties.

Jim Morris: Rice is grown and consumed around the world. It is the most important grain in the world. And when we have people from other countries that come over, they are amazed at what they see. So, what kind of yields are typical in a rice field in terms of pounds or tons?

Kim Gallagher: My dad started a thing called the hundred sack club. So that would be 10,000 pounds an acre of rice would be, that would be an A+ yield for me. And that’s what I shoot for every year. My fields are big, 150 acres typically. So that’s a lot of rice to shoot for, but our yields have been just really strong in the last 20 to 30 years. We just keep increasing, which is exciting.

Jim Morris: Many people are surprised that we grow rice in California. How well does it grow in the Sacramento Valley?

Kim Gallagher: Rice grows extremely well in the Sacramento Valley. Our climate is perfect for growing this crop. We do rely on water for this crop, but we get a lot of rain in the winter. And so, we have great storage for water. And I think a lot of people would be really surprised to know that rice doesn’t actually use as much water as people think. It’s about the same as what you would use for broccoli or something like that. So it’s really not a huge amount of water, but because we have the rain and because we have these beautiful, warm summer temperatures, rice is a great crop here.

Jim Morris: And that heavy clay soil helps hold that water in place like a bathtub. And that helps for water efficiency too. You mentioned that it’s not labor intensive, but certainly you do need to work with people to get the crop in. How important are the people that you work with here on the farm?

Kim Gallagher: I can’t stress how important the people are that are actually out doing this work and driving these expensive machines, because things happen all the time where they have to be able to react on instant. In fact, yesterday, one of our machines broke down and my foreman, Rolando, was out there with his torch, welding a piece back. And the amount of just knowledge that he has and the skill and the expertise that he’s able to take these really complicated machines apart, fix them, put them back together and here we are going again the next day is just impressive. And, I just appreciate the fact that we’re in a small group. We’re not working in large groups, but it’s just, these are essential workers. COVID-19 is a very real thing. And these guys haven’t stopped. So protecting them, making sure that everyone’s out here staying healthy, maintaining social distance, wearing masks. I feel like that’s a huge responsibility, because I just appreciate so much of what they’re giving to this farm and the knowledge, and expertise that they have.

Jim Morris: Absolutely. And when you look at, I’m from Sacramento and a lot of things are shut down right now. It’s really nice to come up to farm country and see the activity. And it certainly is essential activity. And the workers certainly are the backbone of that. Let’s talk about your parents, Jim and Marilyn, and the impact they’ve had.

Kim Gallagher: Yeah. I feel really lucky that I was able to farm with my dad. He passed away in 2012. And I came out on the farm when he had a cancer diagnosis in 2009, and just tried to glean as much information as I could from him. Really, the things that I’ve learned from my dad were the things that he learned from his dad and his dad started farming rice in 1942. So, we have, I feel just really fortunate that we have this legacy and this understanding. And, I feel like there’s this history that I have when I’m out here. And it’s pretty phenomenal. It feels like I’m with my dad and my grandpa.

Jim Morris: And the family unit is so important and also flexibility because this is not a nine to five job. You’re married, you have kids talk a little bit about the balancing act to make it all work.

Kim Gallagher: I do. I have two teenage boys who are doing their distance learning right now at home. And I have a husband who right now his main job is finishing the almond harvest and then managing our rice dryer. So his job is incredibly busy, but fortunately we’re a really good team and we communicate really well. And so even in the midst of crazy times where the kids are not in their normal schedule at all, they’ve actually been out here helping on the farm and getting opportunities to drive things and see kind of what it’s like. Especially in the spring, when school was canceled for a month, they were out here and they were part of our labor force. And so I just, I love that.

I love that farming can be this family unit that’s passed on generation to generation. And just that they’re getting to see what their parents do on a day to day basis because I think sometimes they have no clue. Kids don’t know what their parents are doing, but we’re putting them to work when we can. And they help out in the scale house during harvest. And so, it really is like an all hands-on deck, family affair at times out here. And again, I just feel really lucky that Pat and I can manage when one’s super busy than the other one can help out with the kids. But somehow we managed to keep it all rolling and so far so good, I would say.

Jim Morris: And your kids will prosper from that kind of hands-on approach. It’s not so common as it was back in the day. So let’s talk a little bit about a passion that you have, and we share is you like to run long distances. How many marathons have you run?

Kim Gallagher: I have run seven marathons. So, yeah, that is a passion of mine. I wish I would have run 10 like you have Jim, but seven, I feel it’s pretty good. And I do hope to reach 10 one day. I just feel like sometimes after harvest I have all this extra energy and so I can put that into my running and I just feel like it’s… I like being outside. And so, I get to continue being outside and, and yeah, I like to set big goals, I guess. A hundred sacks of rice or 10 marathons. That’s how I operate is setting large goals for myself.

Jim Morris: When you’re running in this rural environment, have you ever seen anything unusual – snakes or wildlife or anything like that?

Kim Gallagher: I’ve seen everything as usual out here. I have to say, but yeah, I really feel fortunate that I am not afraid of snakes, because there have been multiple times where I’ve almost stepped on a snake out here. And I think they’re great, because they’re eating the mice and the rats and I’m not a fan of rats, so I’m okay that there’s snakes out here, but yeah, there definitely are birds that keep me company and all sorts of wildlife. That’s out here as I’m running. I know everyone who’s farming out here, so it’s kind of fun too, because I get to see my neighbors and they’ll stop and ask, “Did your car break down?” And I’ll say, “No, I’m actually just going on a run right now.” There’s a great group of people that are out here are watermen who have bailed me out of ditches before and things like that. But yeah, there’s the… I know the people out here, and so I feel really safe running out here.

Jim Morris: Is there any correlation between the discipline, the endurance it takes to run long distances and what we’re seeing here in the rice harvest?

Kim Gallagher: Marathons aren’t for everyone, I would maybe that’s same as farming rice, it might not be everybody’s favorite thing. I do think that there’s part of me that feels like this was in my blood and I’m drawn to this and I love this. This wasn’t something that I always thought I was going to do. I was teaching, I was a biology teacher for many years before coming out here. And, I fell in love with this whole farming lifestyle. And, definitely in planting season, the days are really long. But you get through and you get to harvest and it feels like a graduation, right. And you get to see how you did. And so there’s a lot of correlations there between teaching and farming between running and farming. I just feel really, really lucky that I get to be out here doing what I love.

Kim Gallagher: And I will say, I didn’t always think that I would be, I said I didn’t think I would always be a farmer. I don’t think my parents thought any of us would be a farmer. They didn’t discourage it. They didn’t encourage it. They just said go be what you want to be. But I have a neighbor who farms across the road and her name’s Camie Kaelin. And when I saw Camie out here, farming, I thought, “Oh, women can do this.” And so, I think it was really motivating for me when I started farming. And I felt having Camie out here and seeing her do it, that this is something that I could do. And so, I’ve thanked Camie for that because I’m really appreciative that there was someone that looked like me that was doing this. And it’s something that I absolutely love doing. It’s not for everybody, but I love it.

Jim Morris: After harvest, there is a little bit of water put on the rice fields and then they serve as tremendous habitat for millions of birds that fly along the Pacific Flyway. Your background, Kim, as a biology teacher and seeing this every day. Tell me a little bit about the rice ecosystem.

Kim Gallagher: So that’s probably the whole piece of the puzzle that makes this job so satisfying. There is an enormous amount, millions of waterfowl that come in and they eat the, first of all the rice, and then the bugs, and just love living in our rice fields during the winter. And then, even after the waterfowl leave, we have all of these shorebirds. So 60 percent of that diet for those waterfowl, it’s coming from these rice fields. And so, I just really think that tying all of that together, where we’re growing this crop, it’s really high yielding. It’s feeding a lot of people. It’s great quality.

Kim Gallagher: And then these birds come in and then we’re feeding them and we’re growing this great crop and it’s getting 60 percent of their diet. And then the shorebirds come in and now we’re doing work with an endangered species, the salmon and feeding them. I just feel like this is such an incredible crop. How many things can we feed? There’s snakes that are making their homes here. There’s owls that are out here feeding. I mean, there’s just so many different species, different wildlife that make their home out here. It’s really incredible. All through the year, you just can find something amazing out here.

Jim Morris: You mentioned the salmon and not too far from here is where our pilot salmon project has occurred for a couple of years with UC Davis, Cal Trout, et cetera, and really good encouraging information that hopefully down the road, we will have salmon being raised in rice fields in the winter time and then released into the wild to help that struggling population. So, that’s very encouraging. And I have a specific wildlife question for you. I saw on your farm several years back, a giant bullfrog. Tell me about that giant bullfrog.

Kim Gallagher: Yeah, that giant bullfrog was probably like 12 inches by 12 inches. It was probably the largest bullfrog I think I’ve seen. And you had asked if I could pick that bullfrog up. And as a biology teacher, I have dissected frogs multiple times. I thought, no problem. I can pick up that giant bullfrog, but I think I hesitated at the last minute and the bullfrog got away before I could pick it up. And I think I saw you actually tried to pick up the bullfrog as well, even after that. And hopefully that bullfrog continues to live somewhere out here on the farm, because it was definitely one of those species where you want to see that one last forever.

Jim Morris: Yeah. I’m giving you a bad time because there’s so much wildlife to see, but it was a funny story. And the only difference is when I tell the bullfrog story, the bullfrog keeps getting bigger. Every time I tell this story.

Kim Gallagher: It might have been two feet.

Jim Morris: It’s going to be eventually. After harvest, there is one final step here on the farm and Kim, where are we? And what’s happening here?

Kim Gallagher: Sure, we are at Erdman warehouse. This is where my family and other people come to dry and store their rice after harvest. We talked about in the field that we harvest rice somewhere between 15 percent moisture to 22 percent moisture. But rice is actually a grain that perishes, if you don’t dry it down to 14 percent where it can be stored a little bit longer, what we do at the dryer is when the trucks come in, we receive them into our receiving bins. And then, we send it up through a dryer that is propane. And sometimes if the rice comes in with like a very high moisture, it has to go through the dryer twice or three times. But then when we get the rice stored to 14 percent, we can start storing it in. We’ve got a concrete flat house that stores about 10 million pounds of rice.

Kim Gallagher: My grandpa, when he started farming, he realized that dryers and storing your rice were kind of an important thing. He was farming before he owned a warehouse, and his rice was sitting in trailers waiting to go through a dryer. And there was a lot of risk involved. And so he decided that if he had his own storage, his own dryer, he could bring the rice somewhere where it could be dried and stored and then, and not perish, because we do all of this work to get the rice to harvest, but there’s this whole second part of once it’s harvested, that can go wrong if you don’t dry it properly, if you don’t store it properly.

Kim Gallagher: And so 76 years ago, he invested in this warehouse. It’s kind of neat that people who’ve been coming in here have been coming in for three generations. And so we have a really stable group of customers that come in. It’s a really important part of the whole process. So, as the rice leaves the warehouse, it heads to the mill, and in the mill, that’s where they take that hull off of the rice and get it ready to send out to the United States and export it to the world.

Jim Morris: I think people have seen these dryers, silos, bins called many different things. They are huge and hold a lot of rice. How much rice do they hold?

Kim Gallagher: 34 million pounds is what our rice dryer can hold.

Jim Morris: After it’s milled, then rice from California is enjoyed all over the world. And how do you enjoy rice?

Kim Gallagher: My family’s favorite way of enjoying rice is, and the rice that we grow in California is a stickier rice. So, with Thai food is one of the ways that we enjoy our rice, but our family’s favorite is definitely sushi. I love that the fact that all the sushi that we eat in California could have come from one of our fields and it’s a great food. So, that’s how I enjoy it.

Jim Morris: And one of the keys I think too is having a good rice cooker, or are you a stove top person?

Kim Gallagher: Oh, no, no. We are fully invested in the art. My rice cooker makes sounds when it’s done and when it starts, I mean, it’s a very nice rice cooker. And so, that’s always been an important family value. In fact, a favorite wedding present from my parents was a rice cooker, because we think that’s an important thing is you can cook it any way you want, but a good rice cooker is a good investment.

Jim Morris: Absolutely. And we are just steps away from the Sacramento River. What do you like about the Sacramento Valley?

Kim Gallagher: This is a quiet part of the Sacramento Valley right now, because we’re kind of in between two smaller towns. So there’s not a lot of traffic that we get on the river, but we have the best wildlife out here right now. So sometimes we’ll see fishermen fishing in the river, lots of birds, lots of waterfowl, and then all throughout the year, lots of snakes. And so it’s kind of interesting. I’ve been keeping a photo collage of the snakes the I’ve seen this year, including the giant garter snake, and gopher snakes and frogs, and all sorts that we have bats and all sorts of things. I just think it’s kind of neat. There’s, alongside all of the agricultural products that are being grown out here, are the wildlife that lives out here too, and feeds alongside us on the agricultural products. There’s a lot of food for the wildlife too. And I just think that that’s neat.

Jim Morris: All those snakes, this will work for anybody but Indiana Jones, I think. But anyway, and Highway 45 is absolutely beautiful. I think it’s one of the unheralded parts of our state, the Sacramento Valley, even in 2020 with all the problems, the best word I can use to describe our region is that it’s home. So thank you so much, Kim, for your time. I want to thank everybody for listening, too. You can go to Podcast.CalRice.org to find out more including video from Kim’s harvest and be sure and subscribe while you’re there at Podcast.CalRice.org. And we appreciate your feedback. Thanks for listening.