Episode 25: Go Time for Harvest and the Wildlife Migration

Even during difficult times like we’ve been experiencing, it helps to look for the positive.

Everett and Steve Willey

In Sacramento Valley rice country – two positives are unfolding. After a difficult year where drought left 20 percent of fields unplanted, harvest of America’s sushi rice is underway and early reports are favorable.

Although acreage is down, initial reports on quality and yields look strong.

“We’re about thirty percent down from the total acreage that we can plant,” said Everett Willey, who farms with his dad Steve, at E.D. Willey & Sons in Nicolaus, Sutter County. “The growing season went alright. It was a fight to keep water on some fields. That’s why we started harvest early. There was a lack of water on the bottom check of the sweet rice field we’re harvesting now. We couldn’t push water down to it, so that’s a big reason we’re harvesting this early.”

A second positive is there’s help on the way for the Pacific Flyway a program should provide emergency water to support the millions of birds heading to our region’s rice country to rest and refuel.

Luke Matthews

“The Drought Relief Waterbird Program is focused on providing extra water from groundwater pumping to shallow flood rice and wetland acres in the Sacramento Valley for waterbirds, commented Luke Matthews, Wildlife Programs Manager with the California Rice Commission. “It’s going to be particularly important this year, given the lack of habitat that we expect to see.”

In a normal year, about 300,000 acres of rice fields are shallowly-flooded after harvest, which breaks down rice stubble and creates vital environmental benefits. This year, current estimates are only about 65,000 acres will be flooded.

That’s where the program with the State Department of Water Resources can provide substantial help for this vital part of the Sacramento Valley ecosystem.

“Well certainly the current conditions truly heighten the importance of this landscape,” said Greg Golet, Applied Ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, one of the conservation groups that work with rice growers to maximize wildlife benefits from their fields. “These birds, when they arrive here, typically are ready to rest and refuel before either they continue further south or they set for their winter period in this region.  But this year, they’re going to arrive in likely poorer condition, due to the lack of good habitat in their traditional stopover sites. In addition to malnourishment, they can be susceptible to disease, and that’s exacerbated by crowded conditions.”

Greg Golet

With such a dry landscape, rice field habitat is an even more important for the health of millions of ducks, geese and other birds.  

“It’s really an incredible opportunity that we have,” Golet remarked. “There are all of these levers, effectively, that we can pull to create the conditions that these birds depend upon. We know what they want, in terms of timing, depth of the water and how long it stays out on the fields. With this system of rice agriculture and associated infrastructure, it’s really very straightforward to create those conditions and then we see virtually an immediate response. The trick, of course, is getting adequate water to create that for the birds.”

The wildlife migration has begun. Shorebirds and ducks have already started to arrive. We will keep you updated on harvest and the amazing annual wildlife migration about to unfold.

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Episode Transcript

Jim Morris: COVID, fires, and drought. This year has been a rough one throughout our state. It helps to look for the positive where you can. And for me, what I’m looking at is a positive, the rice harvest in the Sacramento Valley. It’s a momentary respite from the unrelenting news cycle, and it appears there’s good news as well for the millions of birds that depend on the rice fields every fall and winter in this area.

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 31 years. And it’s funny how life can go full circle. Before, I was in ag communications. Ten years before, I was in the marching band at John F. Kennedy High School in south Sacramento, playing trombone alongside of Steve Willey. And this morning, I’m with Everett Willey, Steve’s son, at ED Willey & Sons in Nicolaus, in Sutter County. And Everett and Steve have started harvest. So Everett, how have things gone with rice harvest to date?

Everett Willey: Pretty good so far. It’s a lot of downed rice right now, just because of the nature of the beast. So we’re trying to get it out of the field while everything else continues to ripen up.

Jim Morris: What varieties have you harvested so far?

Everett Willey: Right now, just Calmochi-101, which is a sweet rice, short grain, made for mochi balls, mochi ice cream. That’s what that rice goes into, a lot of flour, rice flour.

Jim Morris: Yeah. And if anybody hasn’t tried mochi, I suggest you go to Mikuni. And the mochi they have there wrapped around ice cream is phenomenal. It’s well worth trying that out. So tell me a little bit about this year. It’s been challenging in many fronts in California. So what did you see with the rice? You started off with not being able to plant everything. So talk a little bit about that, and then also the growing season.

Everett Willey: Yeah. We’re about 30% down from our total acreage that we can plant. So there’s quite a few hundred acres that’s just dirt right now because of lack of water. Growing season went all right because, I mean, it was a fight to try to keep water on some fields. And that’s part of the reason why we’re actually harvesting right now is because the field that we’re in, there was a lack of water in the bottom check because we just couldn’t, we couldn’t push the water down to it. So I think that has a big part in why we’re actually harvesting right now.

Jim Morris: And it was very smoky throughout Northern California, in fact, still is. What impact did the smoke have on the rice, if any?

Everett Willey: The smoke this year wasn’t as bad as last year timing-wise. Last year, it hit really heavy right when the rice was all flowering and I think that actually killed yields. The smoke this year, it came a little later. So a lot of the rice was already flowered. It’ll slow down the ripening process probably a little bit because it’ll keep the temperatures a little cooler. And we’re definitely not getting any of the north wind, that’s really what helps dry out and ripen the rice for harvest.

Jim Morris: In terms of the smoke, fortunately, rice has an external hull on it. So there’s not going to be a damage to the kernel, but the lack of sunlight did slow some of the maturity down in parts of the valley. Also, to your point about not planning a full crop, we have about 100,000 acres less rice grown this year in the state because of the drought. So certainly, impacts have been felt there. So the rice harvest is interesting when you compare to other crops. Other crops are sometimes harvested late at night, early in the morning. Rice, not so much. So when do you start harvest and why do you start it at that time of day?

Everett Willey: In the morning, our operation, we clean off all the machines, all the harvesters, we blow it all, all the chaff and stuff off, really looking for problems with the harvester, and that way we can try to fix it. But we won’t start actually cutting rice until the dew is lifted because any excess moisture that you’re pulling through the machine makes the machine work harder. And then it can end up in the trailer to have a higher moisture and you don’t want that because that could affect your drying cost. It could make it more expensive.

Jim Morris: What is the moisture range that you’re looking for when you harvest the rice?

Everett Willey: Kernel moisture percentage would be like… 18-22 is a good quality to cost ratio. If you cut a little higher, so like if you’re cutting 22 to 26%, you might get a little bit better quality, but the cost for drying also increases. So that 18-22% range is pretty much where you want to be.

Jim Morris: And how important is the high-tech machinery that you have?

Everett Willey: Having good equipment is extremely important. Compared to 10, 15 years ago, before GPS was really incorporated into these machines, it was not as efficient. Everything was smaller. You had to go slower. So when the rice was ready to come out of the field, you had to plan for it a lot more. Now, you can react and go. It saves a lot of money in the end.

Jim Morris: And the GPS, Global Positioning System, is important in other aspects of the growing season too. So how else is GPS technology helping rice farming?

Everett Willey: It’s a big fuel saver because you’re not… It knows exactly where your implement is going and has been. So if you have something that’s 24-feet wide and you want to have a three-inch overlap, it’ll do that for you. Whereas without it, you’re going back and forth, so you have no overlap to a foot overlap. So having that consistent tillage is where you can really save some money, and it makes everything more uniform, which will make a more consistent yield.

Jim Morris: Other high-tech aspects include planting, which is done by airplanes, which are guided by GPS. So it’s very high tech here in California, rice country. And it’s water efficient as well. Water is a concern after harvest. There will be a shallow amount of water put out there, but it’s very limited this year because of the drought. I’ve seen a lot of wildlife on your farm. What thoughts and concerns do you have about the months ahead and rice fields helping the Pacific Flyway, but with a very limited water supply?

Everett Willey: I think with the reduction in acres planted, a lot of farmers won’t do a decomposition flood. Because on a fallow field, you’d be just putting water on dirt, which isn’t benefiting either wildlife or the farmer. So the reason that we flood in the winter is to decompose the straw that is left over after you harvest it. So when we’re done harvesting, we’ll come in, we’ll usually chop up the straw into smaller pieces to create more surface area, and then we’ll till that ground up just a little bit to help add some air into the soil, and then we’ll put a couple inches of water on it and hold that. And it’ll decompose the straw, but it also provides a plethora of food and habitat for mostly waterfowl. I mean, we’ll get all kinds of other stuff out here too. I mean, you got skunks, and raccoons, and coyotes, and all other kinds of things. It’s a circle of life out here.

Jim Morris: I’ve seen minks as well out here. And talk about some of the birds that you’ve seen too, lot of birds of prey, and not only numbers, but a wide variety of species.

Everett Willey: We’ll get bald eagles out here. The mink are actually pretty… They’re cool. You see one of them run across and you’re like, “Oh, that was a mink. I haven’t seen one of those in a while.” All the different varieties of geese, we’ll get all the varieties of ducks. It was pretty cool. In one of our ditch systems, I actually saw a mandarin duck, which is super rare to see here, super, super rare. It looks like a wood duck, but cooler.

Jim Morris: At the moment, there’s not a lot of water on the landscape, and the needs for wildlife will be great later in the fall and winter. I’m speaking with Luke Matthews, Wildlife Programs Manager with the California Rice Commission. fortunately, there’s a new program the Rice Commission is carrying out with the state Department of Water Resources that should help. Luke, tell us about the program.

Luke Matthews: The Drought Relief Waterbird Program is focused on providing extra water through groundwater pumping to flood rice acres and wetland acres in the Sacramento Valley for waterbirds. And it’s going to be particularly important this year, given the lack of habitat that we expect to see.

Jim Morris: How much of a shortfall going into this program are we expecting in terms of the amount of shallow flooded acres in the Sacramento Valley?

Luke Matthews: In a typical year, there’s about 300,000 acres of flooded rice lands in the winter. And that provides an amazing source of food and habitat for ducks, geese, shorebirds, and more. This year, we expect, if conditions don’t change, to maybe see about 60,000 acres flooded. So a very, very significant decline in flooded habitat.

Jim Morris: And I imagine there’s careful consideration when it comes to groundwater use.

Luke Matthews: Absolutely. Yeah. We’re being very sensitive to areas that may be experiencing depletions or issues with groundwater wells going dry. We also have considerations for proximity to rivers and streams, things like that. So we’re considering all the options, but really focusing on providing the habitat for the resource of concern right now.

Jim Morris: The Pacific Flyway is amazing, 7-10 million ducks and geese, many other birds coming through. It is really a jewel for the Sacramento Valley, important for our environment and something so many people enjoy. And how much is this water needed? Because I believe the birds are already stressed, correct?

Luke Matthews: The water is really needed more this year because of a significant drought throughout the west. The Great Salt Lake is drier than it’s ever been in recorded history, it’s very dry up in Oregon, and Klamath as well is almost dry. So these key areas that migrating birds in the Pacific Flyway typically utilize are dry or drying out. So they’re in a worst-body condition when they arrive here and they’re going to need the water even more than normal.

Jim Morris: As we’ve heard from Luke Matthews, the drought is a significant concern for the millions of birds that are heading our way for the fall and winter months. I’m speaking with Greg Golet, an applied ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, good friends of rice growers and the California Rice Commission. And Greg, as you look at the stresses that the birds have already had as they’re heading our way, how much more important is the Sacramento Valley to provide food and a resting place?

Greg Golet: Well, certainly, the current conditions truly heighten the importance of this landscape. These birds, when they arrive here, typically are ready to rest and refuel before either they continue further south or they set up for their winter period in this region. But this year, they’re going to arrive in likely much poorer condition due to the lack of good habitat in their traditional stop oversights.

Jim Morris: What concerns do you have for the wildlife? Disease and even death are possibilities unfortunately?

Greg Golet: Yeah, that’s definitely the case. In addition to malnourishment, they can be susceptible to disease. A lot of that’s exacerbated by crowded conditions. So you get transfer of the disease through the aerosol when the birds are taking off and landing. And when they’re in tight quarters and you have those high temperatures, it’s just that much worse.

Jim Morris: Let’s talk about something optimistic. There is a program in place that’s being unveiled that hopefully we’ll get more water on the landscape. And we’ve talked about this recently, that rice fields are surrogate wetlands. And so does that give you optimism or some degree of optimism that we’re going to get through this fall and winter in reasonable shape for the wildlife?

Greg Golet: Yeah, it definitely does. It’s really an incredible opportunity that we have. There are all these levers effectively that we can pull to create the conditions that these birds depend upon. And we know what they want in terms of the timing, in terms of the depth of the water, in terms of how long it stays out on the fields. And with this system of rice agriculture in the associated infrastructure, it’s really very straightforward to just create those conditions, and then we see virtually an immediate response. The trick of course, is getting adequate water to create that for the birds.

Jim Morris: I have to tell you, after a year like this, I cannot wait to see the birds. And I’ve been talking with the rice growers. They’re keeping an eye out because it is such a joy for me to see it. What does that mean to you, when you see that wildlife come in to the Sacramento Valley every fall and winter?

Greg Golet: It’s extremely uplifting to see these species drop into our valley. And that’s already happening for the shorebirds whose migration is earlier than for the waterfowl typically. But for me, it provides confirmation that the network of habitats that these migratory species have evolved to depend upon that stretch from the Arctic all the way to South America are still functioning at least in some way. Because they’re depending upon that. It’s if you take out a link in that chain, the whole system can break down. So when they show up, I have that affirmation that, “Hey, we still have this incredible natural phenomenon in place.” And it’s just so rewarding and personally gratifying to be part of making that possible.

Jim Morris: As the migration intensifies and this innovative program takes shape, we will keep you updated on the progress. Thank you to our interviewees, Everett Willey, Luke Matthews, and Greg Golet. You can find out more @podcast.calrice.org. Please listen, subscribe, and comment. Thanks for listening.