rice field during drought

Episode 34: A Year Like No Other

California farmers are no strangers to drought, although the magnitude of this, a third straight dry year, has widespread and significant impacts in Sacramento Valley rice country and nearby communities.

Kurt Richter
Kurt Richter

A lack of adequate rain above Shasta Dam has brought historic water cutbacks to growers on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, with a major reduction in rice plantings.  This contrasts the east side of the valley, where rice acreage is expected to be normal to potentially above normal. Full rice acreage won’t be known until later this spring.

“We’re down to 25 percent of normal rice acreage,” said grower Kurt Richter, who farms in Colusa County. “For a westside operation, that figure is actually very high this year. I’m the only person I know who is on the west side who is even planting rice at all.”

The sharp reduction in rice planting will have a ripple effect along the west side of the valley, including not only rice mills, dryers, ag pilots, supply companies and truckers, but virtually all people and businesses.

Rick Richter
Rick Richter

“We have never seen a year like this,” remarked Rick Richter of Richter Aviation. Rick has aerially seeded rice fields since the 1970s. “We’re basically one-seventh of what we normally do.”

Other area businesses echo Richter’s comments and concerns.

“You talk to some of the guys that went through drought in the 1980s and this seems to be even worse,” said Jason Bowen, Pest Control Advisor at Colusa County Farm Supply. “This affects everyone. Every person you talk to. It doesn’t matter where you work at, you’re completely affected.”

Jason Bowen
Jason Bowen

Bowen is among those who hope state and federal aid is forthcoming, to help during a time of significant economic hardship.

“Any aid would benefit everyone,” he said. “Whoever the aid does go to, it’s going to trickle down all the way through the local economies in any way, shape or form.”

While faced with cutbacks not seen in decades, there remains a  persevering nature that is a hallmark characteristic of this region.

Jim Cook
Jim Cook

“People here are tough. They are strong and have a way of working together to make this successful ,” said Jim Cook, Director of Research and Technology at Colusa County Farm Supply. “We know we’re in for a tough go. The bottom line is we have no other place to go. This is like the Alamo for us. This is our place where we’re going to make a stand and we are going to survive.”

Jennifer Abel
Jennifer Abel

Jennifer Abel is General Manager of Louis Cairo’s in Williams, a restaurant with a rich history in the valley. She said they, like so many restaurants, have had big challenges in recent years, from COVID-19 restrictions, the economic downturn and large fires in nearby areas. Drought impacts to nearby farms and ranches will likely impact their business, but she remained positive about their future.

“We’re really strong and united,” she said. “We have a solid foundation of families and people that have been here for a long time that have been farming and working in this community. They’re going to come together, make a difference and make something happen.”

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Episode Transcript

Jim Morris: This is normally a time of activity far and wide in the Sacramento Valley, rice planting season, including here in Glenn County. There’s a disconcerting lack of tractors and airplanes working on the west side of the valley right now, as a third year of drought is impacting our region in an unprecedented way. With so much farmland idle, impacts will be strongly felt. This year will be a test like no other.

Kurt Richter: There’s going to be a lot of people that are not going to be able to find work this year.

Rick Richter: Every person you talk to around the local community has been affected.

Jim Cook: This is really like the Alamo for us. This is our place where we’re going to make a stand and we are going to survive.

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. Simply put, there is no year in memory compared to what’s happening this year, especially for those who live and work along the Sacramento River. Pain will be real and widespread. We won’t know the total acreage of rice planted in the state until later this spring. For now, it’s clear that planting will be dramatically lower on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, and it appears to be normal to perhaps a bit greater on the east side. Kurt Richter, what’s happening in your rice fields right now?

Kurt Richter: We are currently wrapping up getting the 2022 crop into the ground. It has been kind of a short season for us because acres are scaled back so significantly. Our workforce is scaled back significantly too, but we’re probably a week away from getting the final fields planted and in the ground.

Jim Morris: One of the words that comes up a lot this year is unprecedented. Is that a good adjective to describe what you’re seeing? What type of cutbacks are you having?

Kurt Richter: Notable cutbacks, the worst that we’ve ever seen in our operation, and I’m sure that goes out industry-wide as well. We’re down to 25 percent of normal, and for a west side operation like us, that’s actually very high. I’m the only person I know on the west side who’s even planting rice at all. But we’re very fortunate, with some of the leases that we hold, where well water is available, very good river water rights are available. We’re able to maximize that. However, 25 percent is still the lowest we’ve ever been by a large margin.

Jim Morris: The impacts from that reduction extend well beyond your farm I imagine, so let’s start with your farm. How does it impact you, your workforce, and then how does it impact the communities around you?

Kurt Richter: Well, we’re running a much leaner crew than we typically run. We just don’t need the people that we normally need because we don’t have the acres to necessitate it. So, a lot of the seasonal people that we typically hire this time of the year are not coming on board with us. We just don’t have anything for them to do. We’re getting by with our full-time guys for the most part. That’s how we’re scaled back.

Kurt Richter: I’ve heard many similar stories from other growers, too. There’s going to be a lot of people that are not going to be able to find work this year. And then when you extend that out to the rice dryers, the rice mills, I mean they’re all going through budget cuts right now too, layoffs, paring down and trying to figure out how to survive a year where, in some areas, there is no rice at all.

Jim Morris: That sound is Nick Richter seeding a rice field in Colusa County, an all too uncommon sight on the west side of the Sacramento valley this year. Rick Richter is Nick’s dad, and he owns Richter Aviation in Maxwell. You’ve been seeding rice field since the late ’70s. Rick, how different is this year compared to all of the past time you worked in rice?

Rick Richter: We have never seen a year like this if you really want to know the truth. Back in the ’70s, like ’76, ’77, I remember we were at 50 percent, and I don’t recall any year quite like this.

Jim Morris: For those not directly involved in farming, they may not understand that impacts from not being able to plant crops extend well beyond the farm level. How does this drought and the idled acreage impact businesses like yourself and other businesses on the west side of the Sacramento Valley in particular?

Rick Richter: Well, this year as an example, Jim, last year we did 42,000 acres. This year we’ll be lucky to do 6,000 acres. So, we’re basically one-seventh of what we normally do. And last year was a 75 percent year, so we were even short at that following a few years of cutbacks. So, this is pretty hard to take.

Jim Morris: You’d much rather be in an airplane right now?

Rick Richter: Most definitely, and I’ve got four other pilots that aren’t here would rather be flying. So, right now we just have Nick, my son, he’s out flying and doing the work. And he’ll be done. This is his only seeding job for the day.

Jim Morris: You’ve been at this a long time. I imagine you don’t do any of this without the thought that you have to persevere through tough years. Will you and will the region largely come through this okay?

Rick Richter: Well it has to rain, Jim. We’re here because of the drought, and we understand that, but we’ll persevere.

Jim Morris: Work is well underway to try to help third parties suffering from the drought, businesses like yourself, for the sake of this region. How helpful would that be?

Rick Richter: Oh, Jim, that’d be a Godsend. If there’s aid out there, we’ll take it. We’d rather be working, granted.

Jim Morris: How concerned are you for allied businesses? Everybody has a different structure and financial situation, but so many are being impacted so seriously this year.

Rick Richter: Oh, the allied industries, I’ve talked to several of them so far. From the fuel suppliers, to the fertilizer companies, to the trucking companies. Every person you talk to around the local community has been affected. And it’s just going to get worse. We’re just hoping this is a one-year deal and we’ll get some rain and come out of this.

Jim Morris: I’m in the Williams area speaking with Jason Bowen, Pest Control Advisor for more than 20 years at Colusa County Farm Supply, a Chico State graduate just like myself. Jason, tell me about this unfolding year and drought impacts as you see them.

Jason Bowen: Started out the winter with a lot of hope with the storms that we had in December. Progressing through the winter that kept on going down, and down, and down. And we’re kind of where we’re at right now. Being a PCA, and then also a rice farmer, everything we’re seeing that nobody’s ever seen. You talk to some of the guys that went through this in the ’80s, and this seems to be even worse. On our side of it, it’s nothing we’ve ever seen. Hopefully we’ll never see it again.

Jim Morris: I’m going to mention a quote I saw that you stated, and would like you to amplify that a little bit. Several years ago during an earlier time of drought you said, “California rice farmers are a special breed of people, great stewards of the land who create environmentally friendly habitat for migrating waterfowl and other species of birds. I am proud to be part of this industry, not only as a consultant, but as a farmer who instills a love of agriculture to my wife and two sons every chance I get.” Awesome quote. I personally share those sentiments. So someone who does not know this Sacramento Valley area, how intertwined are rice growers with the environment and the local business community?

Jason Bowen: Completely. Everything goes hand in hand from starting at the farmer going all the way down, all the businesses in one way or the other are affected. From the aerial applicators, to the ground applicators, to chemical and fertilizer distributors, mills, all the way down, trucking, grocery store. It’s a trickle down to everyone. When the farmers are affected, the entire community’s affected. I live in Maxwell, right in the heart of rice growing country, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I mean my house is surrounded by rice fields that are completely dried up, and not an acre around there is being planted besides a few fields here and there. So it affects everyone, every person you talk to. It doesn’t matter where you work at, you’re completely affected.

Jim Morris: Not too far from Maxwell is Sites, and there is talk and hope to get a reservoir built. I know it’s in the future, but how helpful would additional water storage be for the future of the valley down the road?

Jason Bowen: Any additional water obviously would be completely helpful with the world that we live in. Everybody knows when the water projects were built they were managed in a way that it was for flood protection, for environment, for farming, for everything. That’s obviously being pulled on a lot harder. Any shape or form where we can store more water when we do have those high water-flow years is a benefit for everybody in the Northern Sacramento Valley.

Jim Morris: And looking at the here and now, it’s obviously going to be a tremendously difficult year. If it does come through, how helpful would state and/or federal aid be for this region?

Jason Bowen: Any aid would benefit everyone. Everyone in the communities, it’s a trickle down. So whoever the aid does go to it’s going to trickle down all the way through the local economies in any way, shape, or form.

Jim Morris: Jim Cook is Director of Research and Technology at Colusa County Farm Supply. Jim, tell me about the drought impacts you’re seeing and experiencing.

Jim Cook: Well, one of the main things that we see is, being a support group for a support business like Colusa County Farm Supply, is our capacity to provide information and new products to our growers and fieldmen. The delay or the abbreviation of trying to get trials out, trying to get accurate information, and it has just changed the entire scheduling, our pace, the way our guys operate.

Jim Cook:

But also what it’s done for us is, all of our information that we develop from a research standpoint is localized. So you can’t take information let’s say from the east side of the valley and bring it over here to the west side. So that’s why it’s important that we get our own information put together. So you have a drought, you have less fields to work with, it delays that information process which our guys need to move forward with new things.

Jim Morris: Those new things will ultimately help the grower and then the consumer. This takes years to develop, so this year is significant in terms of the challenge to get this done. Correct?

Jim Cook: That’s absolutely right. You just interviewed with Jason, who is one of the top rice people I’ve ever worked with. But he has thrown at me more problems than I can shake a stick at. But it gives us an opportunity to test the new materials against the new resistance issues, cultural factors, things that we’re operating against. And that is the direction of where his business and the business of our fieldmen are going, so we need to provide that information.

Jim Morris: On the website for this company it says, “This region of California is also a treasured source of year-round natural beauty. We’re proud to be a vital part of this area, its communities, and production agriculture. We know a lot of people in this region that are hurting.” Comment on how resilient this region is.

Jim Cook: All of us come from farming backgrounds and have been through tough times. One of the main comments my father made to me is, “Don’t go into farming,” because of these issues. People are tough. They’re strong. They have a way of working together to make this successful, but they know they’re in for a tough go. We all know with that. Bottom line is, we have no other place to go. We don’t have the golden parachute. We don’t have anything that’s going to bail us out. This is it. So it is up to us to make this happen.

Jim Morris: The dominoes from this year’s drought will fall well beyond the obvious farms, mills, ag pilots, equipment, and inputs for crops. Communities with agriculture as our foundation are hurting and they’re bracing for a summer like no other. Jennifer Abel is General Manager at Louis Cairo’s, a place she’s worked at for nearly 30 years. Louis Cairo’s is a dining institution in Williams, a short drive off of Interstate 5, about an hour north of Sacramento. Jennifer, please tell me about your perspective and the impacts you’re either seeing or fearing regarding the drought.

Jennifer Abel: I feel that it’s going to be detrimental to our community. Already, the people that come in at the end of the day, normally the farmers talking about their rice, and their water, and what it looks like, and what the ground looks like as they’re sewing it up, and everything like that. You don’t see a lot of that going on. You see them coming in and having these meetings, and they’re nervous, and they’re tense, and things are getting scary. And the west side is, from my understanding, which is where we’re at, has the hardest hit compared to the east side. It’s going to be a huge impact on not only our community, but the entire north state, the entire state, and nation.

Jim Morris: The Cairo family immigrated from Italy in the early 1900s. They had little money, so the entire family worked in prune orchards. Louis loved Colusa County and opened up a hamburger stand in the 1930s. Louis Cairo’s has been in operation for more than 75 years. If you haven’t done it, you need to visit, and you have to try their Louie Bread. You won’t forget it. Jennifer, how connected is this place, this community, with the farmers whose fields surround all the towns in the Sacramento Valley?

Jennifer Abel: I’d say we’re incredibly connected to the point that … Well for instance, going through COVID and everything. And there was a time when we opened, closed, opened, closed, to-go only, outdoors only. Then we just had to close for a while because we weren’t monetarily making it on just being open for to-go. Then we had the wildfires that were up this way and it was literally raining ash, so you couldn’t eat outside. It was bad for your health.

Jennifer Abel: All these farmers got together and singled me out and said, “What can we do to get Louis Cairo’s open? We are desperate. We will do anything. We will make it work.” That’s the kind of people that’s in this community. That’s the kind of people that want to see us thrive. And those are the kind of people that we want to continue to be here for to make a difference in their lives. To have that place for them to come and talk about their rice, and talk about their trees, and talk about their families, and have a great time.

Jim Morris: You made an interesting point, because it’s been really tough for restaurants well before the drought, from any factor you can name, from the economy, you mentioned COVID, but what about the resilience not only from the Cairo family that as you’ve seen, but from these communities? How tough is this region? It’s going to need to be tough to get through all of this.

Jennifer Abel: It’s going to need to be tough, but I think that we’re really strong and united, and there’s a really solid foundation of families and people that have been here for a long time that have been farming, that have been working in this community, families that have been here from the ground up that make our community. I think they’re going to come together and they’re going to make a difference, and they’re going to make something happen.

Jim Morris: As I look at my surroundings here in Maxwell at an unplanted rice field, this is a year where adjectives fail. Perseverance will be needed like never before for this unique, wonderful, and productive part of California. I want to thank our interviewees, Kurt Richter, Rick Richter, Jason Bowen, Jim Cook, and Jennifer Abel. I also want to say goodbye. I’m retiring from rice. Our family is following our son off to college elsewhere in the West to start a new chapter, and this is my final podcast.

Jim Morris: It will continue under great direction of Katie Cahill, who is a phenomenal person, and she will do a great job telling the California rice story. So please keep listening, send in your questions and comments, leave a review, and subscribe. I am so grateful to have worked in this wonderful region telling a great story with tremendous people doing it. Thank you to all who’ve been so kind and supportive. It has been my honor.