S1 E1: The Starting Point of Your Sushi Roll

It’s harvest time in the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley, where virtually all of America’s sushi rice is grown. Join us as we go on a harvester ride with grower Brian McKenzie in Sutter County, to find out just how much of a hi-tech experience rice farming has become.  We also visit with Taro Arai, Chief Dreaming Officer of Mikuni, a fantastic sushi chef with a passion for local rice. Mikuni uses 20 tons of California rice each month!


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Episode Transcript

Taro Arai: We have DMC Roll, Incredible Roll, Marilyn Monroll, we have so many fun rolls like Stop, Drop and Roll. What else? Rock and Roll. You name it.

Jim Morris: That’s Taro Arai, Chief Dreaming Officer at Mikuni, known far and wide for their fantastic Japanese cuisine, including dozens of sushi rolls and there’s one ingredient grown in the Sacramento Valley that’s at the heart of all that they do.

Taro Arai: We can’t make anything without rice. All the rolls, nigiri, we need that amazing rice to go with and we’re very fortunate that we have California Rice in your rice. Without it, I don’t know how we can operate the business.

Jim Morris: Rice is enjoyed in billions of meals everyday around the world and this is an exciting time. Harvesters are rolling. It’s time to bring in a new crop here in the Sacramento Valley and we’re heading on a harvester ride. That will be the background sound you’ll hear during our visit to the farm. I’m Jim Morris and this is episode one of Ingrained.

Jim Morris: I’m sitting in a rice harvester, day one of harvest with Brian McKenzie, in Sutter County, a fourth generation grower. Brian, how are things going so far with harvest?

Brian McKenzie: Things are going well. All our winter maintenance and spring maintenance on these things, getting ready for harvest seems to have paid off. I haven’t had any breakdowns today, which is the best thing you can ask for first day out.

Jim Morris: And what are some of the bells and whistles that you can monitor what you’re seeing in the field?

Brian McKenzie: My grain tanks full there. On my on-board computer, it tells me my moisture, which is 18.5% right now. It’s real time numbers, they change all the time – now 19.4. And then it calculates my yield. Right now it’s 9,700 pounds per acre and that’s calculated with dry yield. So the computer takes all that information and figures out what my average yield should be for the field. Then I have all kinds of sensors that tell me how fast everything’s moving in the machine. I can change those up and down to make the harvester more efficient through the process.

Jim Morris: And so you’re going to be unloading some grain right now in a bank out wagon. This is pretty cool because this is how Brian can stay in the field all day. Yet the grain can still go to be offloaded, so that is a very cool feature, I see a lot of grain shooting out over here. And another interesting thing too in a matter of 10 seconds perhaps, Brian and other farmers in the Sacramento Valley will harvest enough rice to feed a family of four in America for a year. This is rough rice so it is storable for a long period of time. It’s milled down to brown rice if that’s what the customer wants. It’s milled further down to white rice and that’s what’s going to happen here because this is destined for sushi somewhere in America since we supply virtually all of America’s sushi rice. Kind of crazy schedule right, Brian? You’ll be working for a month, do you get any days off right now?

Brian McKenzie: Right now, no, we will… a month is kind of the optimistic side. If it rains on us a little bit, we’re going to be out here a little longer. Nothing we haven’t seen before, but definitely not something we’re looking forward to.

Jim Morris: You have interesting family situation because your wife, Ashley, works at a walnut operation. You also have a son, Beau. So how do you manage the schedule right now?

Brian McKenzie: It’s about communication and figuring out what each one of us has to do that day, and we’re really pulled in a lot of different directions. She goes to the huller at all hours of the night, turn it on or off, basically doing her part of that job. And then, I’m obviously out here harvesting all day. So it’s a really tough time for us. And we’re always getting by, trying to make it work.

Jim Morris: Definitely a crazy time when you have harvest. So how does your son go to school?

Brian McKenzie: So during harvest, it’s actually one of my favorite things is that I get to take him to school most days. It’s not the norm during the growing season for rice because there’s a lot of early mornings and late nights, but during harvest, I’m able to take him to school. It’s great to be able to spend some more time with him in such a busy time of year.

Jim Morris: And I’ve seen your son, Beau, and he likes harvesters, I think. I mean what kid wouldn’t like such a big bit of machinery here that’s so high tech. So how much does he like to harvest or I think haven’t even seen him asleep on one time, so he’s pretty comfortable too.

Brian McKenzie: Yeah, he’s spent quite a bit of time in these, all kinds of different harvesters that we’ve had over the years. He always asks usually about July, “Dad, when can I go get in the harvester? Dad, when can I get the harvester?” He’s the unload guy, so he gets to hit the button that extends the auger out and then he gets to turn it on to unload the bankout cart. And that’s kind of his share of responsibility while we’re out here harvesting.

Jim Morris: That’s awesome. I would note that I have not been offered that opportunity yet. So you went to UNR, Nevada, Reno. And what did you study and did you know you were going to come back to the rice farm when you went off to school?

Brian McKenzie: At UNR, I studied Economics and Marketing. I did not know I would come back to the ranch. It was kind of, it was an option always, I think. But it wasn’t stressed by my parents. They, my dad did a lot here, kept everything going very short handed. I have it much easier than he did. I’ve got great equipment, but they kind of wanted me to do something else. The industry didn’t look great at the time when I was in college. And so they definitely wanted me to go do something else. And if I wanted to come back to the family farm, they would be here in some capacity if that was my choice.

Jim Morris: So it looks like we’re about to make a turn. And so any trick to navigating a turn as we’re going to cut another row of rice. I keep hearing the video games sounds.

Brian McKenzie: So the video game sound is my yield monitor turning on and off when I lift my header, which is where all the cutting of the rice is happening before it goes into the machine. What we do is, you’ve got to lift up your header or else you’ll eat the straw that’s already been combined through the machine. It’ll plug us up really quick. For whatever reason, the harvester can eat the same amount of rice standing. Well, when you read a bunch of straw that’s already been put through the machine one time, it’ll choke this machine it and we’ll be stuck here for a few minutes. I’m going to get you a bar, Jim. And you can help me dig it out.

Jim Morris: Well, I’ll do what I have to do Brian, but it is like 90 something degrees out there today. So what would you like to tell folks living in an urban environment? First of all, how challenging is it? What are the opportunities? What do you view that situation? You’re 15 miles from the State Capitol and I could see Highway 99 from where I’m looking, so what do you think about living near an urban environment?

Brian McKenzie: It’s great, but it’s also quite challenging. There’s a lot of traffic. We drive heavy equipment up and down the road and we try to do it, or, at least on this operation, I try to do it when there’s the least amount of traffic flows. People get impatient and that makes it really challenging whenever we move anything on the roads.

Jim Morris: Once harvest is done, then a shallow amount of water goes on the fields and that will degrade the rice straw, it helps out. It also is timed perfectly with the Pacific flyway migration of millions of birds. What do you like about that time of the year, Brian?

Brian McKenzie: That’s a great time of year. It means we finished harvest. It’s usually a relief at that time. We love turning the water on to let the straw decompose and welcome all our birds in.

Jim Morris: And the only bad sign for you when we get to winter is I start calling you because you have a very special bird that frequents your fields, right?

Brian McKenzie: We’ve got the bald Eagle. He kind of lives on the ranch in the winter. The last two years, he spent quite a bit of time over here. He likes one telephone pole in particular, and he just loves hunting around out here.

Jim Morris: And the birds can see him from a long distance, I suspect. We can as well. What have you observed on that?

Brian McKenzie: The first time I saw him, I saw him fly away and then I was watching him and he looked like a small airplane actually flying around, he was a long ways away. You could see him for, it had to be a half a mile. Then when the other birds see him, they can see him from probably about the same distance away and they do not stick around when he flies around. He can manage the sky.

Jim Morris: That’s what you get being top of the food chain. And look at that we have an American Bittern and it just stopped right in front of us. So you see a lot of those bittern around here Brian?

Brian McKenzie: Yeah there’s a lot of wildlife out here. Bitterns are one of the more common ones during harvest.

Jim Morris: One of the claims to fame for California rice would be sushi and that’s been great for rice growing, Brian. Are you a sushi fan?

Brian McKenzie: I am a sushi fan, Jim. I actually had sushi twice last week, once with my rice leadership group and once with my wife for her birthday, so I got spoiled last week by having sushi two times. It was great both times.

Jim Morris: Which brings us back to Mikuni. They use 20 tons of California rice every month and have more than 50 sushi rolls, including the Rescue Roll, which raised more than a half million dollars for disaster relief. They also have the Fox Roll this month that will undoubtedly raise a lot of money to help fight breast cancer. Great work, Taro Arai, who is very passionate about rice.

Taro Arai: Without rice, I don’t think I can live, so people say, “I’m on this diet, that diet.” I’d rather die than not having rice.

Jim Morris: And I can’t think of a better way to wrap things up then with that heartfelt comment. Thank you to Mikuni for your help with this episode. As well as Page Design, Social Crows and Kurt Richter of the Rice Radio Podcast. You can go to Podcast.CalRice.org and we appreciate your comments and questions. Thanks for listening.