Chances are you may never have visited Richvale or even heard of it. This small town south of Chico and west of Oroville in Butte County boasts a population of 244. This is quintessential rice country, with the community surrounded by rice fields and allied businesses, where many of their streets are named after rice varieties.
It’s also where the Rystrom family has farmed for generations.
Before Peter took up farming full time, he graduated from UC Davis with an International Relations and Spanish double major, then traveled to Guatemala and worked to help indigenous Mayan women start businesses that brought basic items like graduated reading lenses and water filtration systems to their rural small villages.
With time on his hands thousands of miles away, Peter spent long hours cultivating his love for classic literature, including Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky and Gogol. The international travel and a deep dive into the classics fundamentally affected his outlook on life; strengthening the value of forgiveness – to let go of resentment and move forward in life.
“Every human being has something that they are capable of that can help others,” Peter said. “Everybody has a unique skill that they can use to love and serve other people.”
Peter’s wife Carissa moved from Washington, D.C. to learn about agriculture from the farm level. After a few “tractor dates,” they began a strong marriage based on love, hard work, encouragement and relationship building.
Peter said he has had two excellent role models in his father, Steve, and grandfather Don, the later who has been an active participant in their rice harvest for more than 70 years.
What has Peter learned from his 96-year old grandfather?
“You can’t control everything that happens, and to be content in every season, no matter what’s going on,” he commented. “Whether we see great yields or poor yields. Terrible weather or great weather. My grandfather is so calm. He just has a palm open approach to life and I have loved that so much from him.”
Don continues to participate in the rice harvest and said he’s living a highly-fulfilled life.
“I enjoy working with all of our family,” Don said. “We’re all doing something that’s worthwhile. It’s a joy!”
Jim Morris: Life moves at an ever faster pace. And sometimes we don’t take the time to take a deeper view. For example, how does classic Russian literature intersect with compassionate service in Guatemala, longstanding Swedish traditions in a tight-knit family in the Sacramento Valley? You’re about to find it.
Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked with California farmers and ranchers for more than 30 years to help tell their stories, including the last 14 with California rice farms and mills. I’m in one of my favorite parts of the Valley, Richvale, quintessential rice country in the Sacramento Valley, here in Butte County. And I’m meeting with Peter Rystrom, part of a family rice farm. Peter, thanks so much for your time. Tell me a little bit about winter in this area, some of the things that you see and do.
Peter Rystrom: One of my favorite things in the winter out here is actually what made you late to this interview, the bald eagles, flying around the fields, perched out there beautifully on trees or on levees. I love the wildlife and the winter. Whether it’s 10,000 geese flying through the air, or whether it’s just being out there watching a couple of ducks swim by you. It’s beautiful.
Jim Morris: You’re right. I saw three bald eagles this morning. So, I was delayed and winter is gorgeous with all the birds. And have you participated in some of the conservation programs out there? Can we talk a little bit about that?
Peter Rystrom: We have, I’ve actually really enjoyed over the last few years, trying to get a handle on what different programs are out there, who is valuing waterfowl habitat. And we’ve actually gotten to participate with the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation and their Bid4Birds program last year. And that was really fun to get some fields flooded after we would normally drain to try to provide that critical habitat, once most farmers have already drained their fields and preparation for the spring.
Jim Morris: It is a quieter time, although we will have tractors in the field in early spring. So when we’re in winter here, what are some of the things that happen? I believe I saw seed rice has gone out. So, some of the things that are happening this season.
Peter Rystrom: After harvest, before planting, there actually a lot of things to do. Some people joke and say, “What a rice farmer is doing in the winter?” But they just don’t see it. One thing that we farmers all do in the winter, myself included, is to sit down and see if you were profitable. And if so, how profitable? What the differences are between different fields? What the differences are between different varieties? Just trying to break things down, both in cost and profit in ways that can help us actually better run our operation. There’s lots of machines to work on, the harvesters that we use out in these fields, that you may have heard about in other podcasts, those are incredibly complicated and the rice is truly like sandpaper inside of them. It wears them down.
Peter Rystrom: So there’s so many replacement parts needed inside those combines. All of our fields for the most part are flooded all winter long. And so, there’s maintenance of infrastructure for irrigation, making sure the levels are right, coordinating that with rainfall, that can actually take a lot of work out on some muddy roads. We ship seed rice out of our bins. We’re part of a seed growers group. So, we dry that ourselves and then we send it over to be cleaned mid-winter so that it’s already at the co-op in spring to be distributed.
Jim Morris: Interesting on the seed rice, because, if you like that consistently high-quality California rice, you really do need strong seed to begin with. And how seriously is that taken and how important is it for the whole process from the farm here to the end consumer at the sushi bar or wherever you enjoy California rice around the world?
Peter Rystrom: It’s incredibly important. We hang our hats on quality and we feel like we have a premium product here in California rice. So to have pure seed is incredibly important. It’s actually a requirement now, because of something called weedy rice that is an invasive species that has gotten into California now and can threaten how we farm our rice. So, it’s incredibly important to start with clean seed that doesn’t have any foreign things in it.
Jim Morris: What have you learned from your dad, Steve, about the necessary evil, if that’s the right term, of the paperwork?
Peter Rystrom: It’s character building, Jim. That may be what I spend the most time on. I know why they’re important. I also know how hard it is to do them. But I really see that as a way to grow as a farmer, as a human being, as a worker.
Jim Morris: Prior to being full-time on the farm, you had an interesting educational track. Tell me a little bit about that.
Peter Rystrom: Jim, I actually did international relations and Spanish at UC Davis. That was not something, while I was doing it, that I thought would be useful on the farm, but it’s what I loved. It’s what I wanted to pursue. I really enjoy it. I got the chance to go to Spain, to study for a semester, practice my Spanish. I got a chance to study tons of different cultures, geography, maps, political relationships, how actors work from state to state. I thought maybe I’d want to work for the State Department or live abroad.
Jim Morris: That’s fascinating. And by the way, my son, RJ is in his first year of Spanish. So I may be contacting you. We have different terms in the house now, our a new dog, Perse, is now known as the Perro. If I am I saying that, right?
Peter Rystrom: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jim Morris: So tell me a little bit about… From there, I believe, or maybe it was before UC Davis, you have also traveled pretty extensively, I’m fascinated by that. So what are some of the places you went and what were you doing when you traveled?
Peter Rystrom: Right after college, I still did not know what I wanted to do. I actually went to Guatemala with a group called Soluciones Comunitarias that worked with indigenous Mayan women there. And they help them start businesses that would bring things like graduated reading lenses and water filtration systems to really rural small villages. So I got to live there for a season and work with those women. And I got to ride in the back of pickup tracks into these tiny communities and see people try on reading lenses and just cry because they’d never thought they’d be able to see like that again. That was pretty special. I mean, that was a cool thing. Also, on that time in Guatemala, anytime you’re living abroad, you can get pretty lonely, you are alone. And I really developed a love that I’ve had till this day there, which is reading. I began to just go to a used bookstore, read books in my apartment, developed a real love for Russian classics, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, books with a lot of soul and just things I never thought I would have been into.
Jim Morris: What is your favorite book? Is that too hard of a question for you? Can you narrow it down to a few?
Peter Rystrom: My favorite book, I actually just re-read, as part of a book study with some old friends over Zoom, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. An incredible book that combines religion, philosophy, family, relationships between brothers and friendships, love in a way that’s just incredible. Another book I absolutely love is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It is the most powerful book that spans multiple generations in a family. And it’s so much about forgiveness that thou mayest choose to forgive, to let go of resentments to move forward in life. And I read that at a time in my life where that was really powerful and there were things I needed to let go of. And it was really life-changing for me.
Jim Morris: And that’s a powerful lesson, perhaps for many in our country and our world right now. Also, the Steinbeck Center in Salinas is absolutely phenomenal. Could not recommend that enough. So let’s get back to your international travel for a bit. How does that shape your mindset when you see people that don’t have some of the things that we perhaps take for granted here in America?
Peter Rystrom: One thing that I think about is, for example, in Guatemala, when I was working with those Mayan women, was just this idea that every human being has something that they’re capable of that can help others, every human being. These are the most marginalized women that get flack for even thinking that they could work or go out into the community to help other people, and seeing them change lives in their own country and their own community that really inspired me, and just helped me see back at home. Everybody has something that they’re capable of. Everybody has a unique skill they can use to love and serve other people.
Jim Morris: As you look at life on the farm and also the world that we’re in right now with some of the challenges that we have. Is there anything from your literature that kind of sums up your feeling on moving forward as a core philosophy?
Peter Rystrom: One of my favorite quotes from The Brothers Karamazov, it’s the story of when Ilyusha goes to another woman’s house, a woman with a bad reputation as being kind of mean-spirited person. That’s all we know about her at that point in the book and something that’s really been impactful in my life is the way he handles this situation. He chides the other person he’s with for being so hard on her and says, “And the person insulted the day before yesterday must forgive her too. She will, when she knows, and she shall know this soul is not yet at peace with itself, one must be tender with it. There may be a treasure in that soul.” When I read that, it immediately stood out to me. But over the years it’s really come, and sometimes this is hard learned, but try to let go of my judgments of other people, try to stop thinking that I know what they’re going through, that I know what their life is like, and that I can make a judgment on why they are the way they are. And also seeing that there’s no time where I feel more grateful in life than when I’m given the benefit of the doubt by another person, that when a friend supersedes everything to believe in me and what I’m capable of, even if they don’t see evidence of that on the surface. And so I would say as far as life philosophy goes, that has been a very impactful scene and literature for me, is that heart of mercy and forgiveness and to let go of judgment towards other people.
Jim Morris: Not only in society, that’s phenomenal, but also farming is a lot about relationships, too. So does this have application in your day-to-day life on the farm?
Peter Rystrom: Farming can be kind of high stakes sometimes, and there’s a lot of risk. We can get kind of in a panic sometimes, and sometimes we see the worst of each other out there in the fields when we’re trying to get something fixed before a rain comes in and sometimes people can snap or be short with each other. Relationally, I feel like it’s been so important, both for myself and for other people with me to give each other a pass, to believe the best about each other, even when we lash out or are angry or frustrated or scared. So yeah, that’s been huge because it happens every year. There’s things we need to let go. We need to choose to accept people, however they happen to manifest themselves that particular day, because we just don’t know what’s happened before they came to us and what’s going to happen after. What they’re worried about. What their fears are.
Jim Morris: Which brings us to the pandemic that we’re in, a lot of challenges out there. How does it affect the farm and how does it affect you in a personal way?
Peter Rystrom: There’s certainly been some practical things that’s changed. It caused some supply problems in the spring when we were trying to get our crops planted. It slowed us down a little bit. And a lot more hand sanitizer, masks and spreading out. Although, on a personal note, I will say that farming is one of those beautiful jobs where if somebody is within a mile of you, most of the time, that means something’s wrong. Typically, people are out on tractors alone. I’m out in my fields alone working with the rice. We’re part of teams, but we’re often in our own machines. Usually, my phone battery dies by lunch. It’s just a lot of phone conversations, even before COVID. So to be honest, in a lot of ways, life has gone on the farm, as we continue to grow food and work as teams, we just are able to do it at a distance naturally.
Jim Morris: So, let’s segue into some of the full-time work you have on the farm. What are some of the things you do depending on the time of the year? Planting season and harvest – those are really the tremendous workloads, I suspect.
Peter Rystrom: We kind of divide our year up into four parts. One is planting, and that’s typically April and May. And that’s where we’re working, the biggest days of the year, maybe 14 hours a day, trying to get our fields prepared to flood and then put seed on. In the summer, that’s a pretty hard transition going straight into long days of irrigation. The crop is the most sensitive in the first month of its life. So we spend a lot of time out in the fields just babying it, if you will. And, typically by late summer, we’ll get a little bit of a break. The rice is pretty self-sustainable at that point, we just give it a little bit of guidance.
August is typically a time where we could take a little trip or go somewhere for a week. And then we get right into harvest in September and October, sometimes it goes into November, we always hope it doesn’t, it gets rainy, it gets muddy. That’s when everybody’s spirits start to drop. And, then we hit winter, which is November through February. And that’s where we’re doing long-term things, all the different stuff, long-term projects that we had just put down for the rest of the year. We have to pick those back up.
Jim Morris: Family operation. Let’s start with your wife, Carissa, who is delightful. What are some of the things that she does on the farm and how understanding is she, when you have these days where you’re going to be gone for 14 hours or more?
Peter Rystrom: My wife is amazing. Carissa is a really special woman. I am so lucky to have met her. She actually moved out from Washington DC, where she was working and she had done a consulting project for USDA. And just this little thought popped into her head saying, “I want to get out into the country and learn something about it.” And her friends teased her about it and made jokes, but she did it. She moved across the country. She had some friends in Chico. She moved in with them. And, pretty quickly I was introduced to her as someone who was in agriculture and lucky me, I quickly invited her on a couple of tractor dates. And for those of you that don’t know, that’s where you invite a pretty girl out to the tractor to get to know her.
She is not overly hard on me for the hours that need to be worked. We’ve gotten into a great rhythm where we communicate well. And, we each know in season there’s certain hours that need to be worked. But what really helps honestly, Jim, is that Carissa is out here with me, that she actually wants to engage in the farm. In spring and fall, especially she’s out every day, supporting the crew, getting us whatever we need, keeping the tractors running. She’s got a couple of specific jobs where she’s totally responsible for, and I’m super proud of her. And I’ve just loved getting to work with her. And one of the most amazing things is, honestly, she has gotten to know everybody that we work with so well. All of the employees, all of the family members, she talks to them every day and builds real relationships. And that’s helped to bring our family farm closer together.
And the last thing I’ll say for Carissa and having her out here, she’s an incredible encourager. Several years ago, I had had a back injury that had really lingered and I had back surgery. And I just had a hard year, mentally, just dealing with not only the pain, but also the idea that what I loved doing, which is farming, was in question. And could I even handle this? A lot of doubt about, can I do this job with this level of pain? And, she came out with me all throughout the year. She came out to the field, she helped me irrigate. She helped me lift heavy things and much more than that, she encouraged me and she really helped me see that that doubt needed to be let go, that I can’t control what happens. I can’t control what has happened. I can only control how I respond, letting go of any anger or resentment for an injury that I could not control, letting that go and just believing that things are going to be okay.
And all of that type of encouragement is something that I could have never even hoped for in a wife. And as a farmer and someone who’s worked through physical injury, there’s no one better I would want to be a life partner with.
Jim Morris: That is awesome. And what a wonderful person, a great testimonial. And also, I just learned the term tractor dates, so that is really cool. So you have a family operation, your dad, Steve, who is wonderful, a great leader. You’re grandfather, Don. And tell me a little bit about the yin and the yang of it, if you will. Probably really good in many respects and other respects is you’re not going to have a 9 to 5 ever, ever, right? So tell me a little bit about working with family.
Peter Rystrom: I am very lucky to have to be a fifth-generation rice farmer. My great grandfather and my great-great grandfather were both Swedish immigrants. They moved out to Nebraska and then moved on to Richvale and bought land out here, sight unseen, not knowing what you could even farm here. Pretty quickly, they started farming rice, and I grew up just in the shadow of some great men. My grandpa has left a big legacy here and he’s really taught us something special. I think something that he especially contributes to our farm education is just the knowledge that you can’t control everything that happens. And to be content in every season, no matter what’s going on, great yields, poor yields, terrible weather, great weather. He is so calm and just has a palm open approach to life. And I’ve loved that so much from him. He’s 96 years old and he still drove a harvester this harvest.
Jim Morris: That is so cool that he could choose not to do it, but he still loves to be out there on the harvester that tells me a lot.
Peter Rystrom: Oh yeah. And we just love him. I mean, my cousins, my brother-in-law, my dad, my uncle, all of us just cannot help but have huge smiles on our face every time we see them out there. This past harvest, we got to have almost a ceremony to commemorate his time out there on the farm at the very last day of harvest, we had him cut the last pass of rice and we parked all the other machines and had him come right down the middle of them. And we got tons of pictures and video, and he had the biggest smile on his face.
Jim Morris: The Rystrom family has quite a history in Richvale. So, tell me a little bit about some of that history that the family has here.
Peter Rystrom: My great grandfather, John Gustaf Rysrom, he moved out here with his son and they were both farmers and he actually only farmed rice for a couple of years before he decided to open up a general store instead. His sisters, the Rystrom sisters, they actually opened up a hotel in Richvale, believe it or not. Yeah. Things were a little different back then. You have any comments on that grandpa?
Don Rystrom: Dad moved out here from Nebraska in 1910, just after he got married, moved to Turlock. Grandpa sent him a letter and told him to come up and look at this good ground up in Richvale. So he came up and looked at it and decided to move up here. And then grandpa moved out here that same year. I enjoy working with all of our family. We’re all doing something that’s worthwhile. It’s a joy.
Jim Morris: You have spent more than 70 years growing and harvesting rice here in the Richvale area. Tell me a little bit about that and the joy that you get from this.
Don Rystrom: I started farming rice in 1943 as an FFA project in high school. I was in the Navy for a couple of years, but have been farming ever since I got out in 1945 running a harvester every year since then.
Jim Morris: Tell me about your time in Richvale and what you like about the town.
Don Rystrom: Peter’s grandma and I traveled quite a bit and somebody asked me after you traveled all this way, where would you like to live in this world? And I thought for a while, I thought Richvale. I really enjoy living here out in the country.
Jim Morris: Richvale, I believe was originally called Selby Switch. The name was changed to Richvale to denote rich soils and everything. It didn’t work for many crops, but it sure worked for rice. Right?
Don Rystrom: It was only good for rice.
Jim Morris: I understand there’s a tradition in Richvale on Christmas morning called you Julotta. Can you tell me about that?
Don Rystrom: Yes. It’s much different now than it used to be, but they used to go to the church when it was still dark and have a service. When the service is over, they came back into the light. That’s been a tradition ever since I’ve been here. Since dad and mom were here, still going on. It used to be all Swedish. The only thing Swedish about it anymore is a group, sing a song in Swedish. And that’s it.
Jim Morris: You remember some of the words from the song?
Don Rystrom: “Lysna, lysna, ara vare Gud”
Jim Morris: What do those mean for somebody who doesn’t speak that?
Don Rystrom: Listen, listen, hear the angels singing.
Jim Morris: My visit with the Rystrom family reminded me that we from taking a little more time to get to know people. As educator Steven Anderson said, “Alone we are smart, together we are brilliant.” Thank you to Peter and Don Rystrom for their time and comments. Also, my appreciation to those who help with this podcast, including Brett Thurman of Page Design who does a fantastic job behind the scenes to make it all work. Remember you can get much more information and listen to past episodes at podcast.calrice.org. Let us know your comments and questions, please subscribe and thanks for listening.