Fall in the Sacramento Valley means the rice harvest and the return of welcome guests from far away. Millions of birds are now arriving in rice fields and wildlife refuges, as part of their epic annual journey along the Pacific Flyway. One of the most striking of these visitors is the snow goose; the sights and sounds of which aren’t soon forgotten.
It was a sighting of these beautiful and boisterous birds that prompted Sandy and Wally Denn to name their rice farm Snow Goose Farms. Find out more about snow geese in our valley and a ‘mom and pop’ family business where wildlife and farming thrive.
Wildlife refuges are a fantastic way to get an up-close view of the Pacific Flyway migration. From now through winter, millions of ducks, geese, raptors and shorebirds will rest and refuel in the Sacramento Valley. Here are some of your viewing opportunities:
Located in Willows, this is a great place to see bald eagles, deer, pheasants, river otters and snow geese by the thousands! Their auto tour is amazing. There is an admission charge.
Conveniently located off of Highway 20 near the charming town of Colusa, this refuge also has an auto tour. It features a wide array of wildlife, including many duck species, geese, Sandhill Cranes and a large rookery of Black-crowned Night Herons. No admission charge.
Located near Chico, this area spans more than 1700-acres and is an excellent place to spot Bald Eagles and Sandhill Cranes, among other wildlife.
Located about 10-minutes from Yuba City, this refuge includes nearly 2,600-acres of wetlands, grasslands and riparian habitat. Best times to see waterfowl here are in January and February.
There’s an excellent auto loop, free of charge. A multitude of birds and other wildlife await, including frequent sightings of American White Pelicans.
Spanning more than 50,000- acres, this location near Galt is a rewarding experience, not just for wildlife, but has great hiking and other recreational opportunities.
Here’s an informative article on the Pacific Flyway migration from Tom Stienstra of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Jim Morris: Like clockwork, they arrive in the Sacramento Valley each fall, resting and refueling through winter. They congregate in great numbers in rice fields and nearby refuges. It is one fantastic photo opportunity.
Sharron Barker: I think just the sheer numbers of snow geese arriving is overwhelming. People don’t realize it. Unless you’re driving along the freeway and you happen to see a rice field full of snow geese, white geese, you might not realize the sheer numbers that arrive here in the Valley during the season.
Jim Morris: Several times a week, wildlife photographer Sharron Barker captures beautiful images of the massive Pacific Flyway migration often at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in Willows. For snow geese, rice fields in our area are a vital rest and refuel stop as they complete a more than 3,000-mile odyssey from Russia and Alaska through our Valley, and ending up in Southern California and Mexico. One can learn a lot from the perseverance of a snow goose.
Sharron Barker: One of the things that I’m really impressed with when they arrive here is that they arrive in family units. There are two adults and usually, maybe three or four young ones, juveniles. And the young ones are grayish in color, so you can really identify those family units. The two adults are white and the young are grayish. It’s amazing to me that they can travel that far and still be together when they arrive here.
Jim Morris: These birds are an inspiration to many, including those at our next destination just down the road. Welcome to episode two of Ingrained, The California Rice Podcast. I’m Jim Morris. I’ve been working with farmers and ranchers for nearly 30 years, and I’m very passionate about them. It’s easy to be that way when you spend quality time on the farm.
Sandy Denn: I’m Sandy Denn. Since 1985, my husband Wally and I have owned and operated Snow Goose Farms.
Jim Morris: Tell me about the name of your business, and I even hear some geese flying overhead.
Sandy Denn: The very first Thanksgiving dinner that Wally and I had together, we were looking out the south window of the house and the 160-acres just south was covered in snow geese. We said, “That’s it. We’re going to put up a business name doing business as Snow Goose Farms,” because it was a given.
Jim Morris: We are in fall, and it’s harvest time. So, what does an average day look like for you?
Sandy Denn: We start 5:00 to 5:30 in the morning, and that seems kind of early because we can’t start cutting until the dew is off and the rice is drier, but there’s a lot to be done. The modern equipment, it’s wonderful because it’s quiet to operate. It’s computerized, it’s got all these great, wonderful things, but every cab is now encased in ceiling to floor glass. So, there’s a lot of window washing, oil checking, fueling up, getting everybody on the same page. So usually by the time the dew is off, we’re ready to roll.
Jim Morris: You don’t have a fleet of workers. So, explain the workforce if you could at Snow Goose Farms.
Sandy Denn: We like to say we’re probably the last real mom and pop operation left in the country because Wally operates equipment, whether it’s spring or fall, tractor or harvester, doesn’t matter. I work in the bins, do all the book work, all the easy book work. We have a CPA that does the heavy-duty stuff at the end of the year, but with some help from a couple of good loyal family members and really good employees who come back year after year, they’re retired themselves now, but come back just to help out because it’s part of their history too. So, we operate on a pretty small employee list for the 750 acres roughly, I don’t know, 750, 775 that we operate. The rest of the year, we maybe add two.
Jim Morris: Wow. So, it’s an explosion during harvest.
Sandy Denn: Yeah. We double our employee list.
Jim Morris: So, people don’t think we really have true seasons in California. I happen to think that we do to some degree. Tell me about fall here in the Willows area in the Sacramento Valley.
Sandy Denn: The biggest thing to me is the birds move in, and it’s beautiful. The sounds, seeing the sky cloud up with geese of all variety you can think of. Not all at once, of course. They come in on different schedules, but it’s pretty impressive. In a little while now, the snow geese will be coming in greater numbers than what they have been. They do literally fill the sky. It’s just unbelievable. It’s so beautiful.
Jim Morris: You’ve had a variety of interests over the years that I’d love to know a few of those, like hot air ballooning, a lot of things involving the sky, and potential peril, I think.
Sandy Denn: Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated with all the birds. I don’t know.
Jim Morris: There you go.
Sandy Denn: I have always enjoyed being up high. I can remember as a kid, one of the things I most often got in trouble for was climbing something. I always just enjoyed being in the sky. When I was 12 years old for a gift one time, my dad had a friend take me up for a flight over Chico. I came back out of the air and said, “Pop, I’m going to do this,” just from 12 years old. Actually, when I was four years old, I watched too many newsreels with women pilots ferrying the cargo planes and even some fighters back and forth across the Pacific, and I thought, “I’m going to do that,” but it didn’t become a reality until I was 12, and I go like, “Yeah, yeah, I do want to do that.”
Jim Morris: So, what experience do you have? Is it almost birdlike if you will, and did you have any peril or any close calls when you were doing any of these things?
Sandy Denn: I only had one crash, which I got a few bruises out of it. The airplane suffered much worse than I did. The big thing that might involve peril in some degree, I never thought of it that way, but is doing aerobatics. That was just something that truly appealed to me. The unusual attitudes, and I never had a problem.
Somebody asked me one time, “Well, but when you’re flying upside down, don’t you have to think backwards?” I said, “No, the ground is still the ground, and that’s a no-no. You want to go the direction the sky is in. Whether that’s up or down, doesn’t matter. The airplane doesn’t care long as you know which one is which.” I enjoy the coordination that was required of aerobatics. I enjoyed the precision. People look at it and say, “Oh, it’s stunt flying.” No, it isn’t. It’s a practiced, very disciplined procedure when you see aerobatics being done, or stunt flying as it’s called by some.
Jim Morris: Oh, that’s fascinating, the level of precision. Let’s come back to the rice farm for a moment. These new harvesters are unbelievable and some of the other equipment, how much have they advanced over the time that you’ve been farming?
Sandy Denn: Since this is a podcast and people can’t see me, I might add that some people say I’m 80 years old, but I’m actually 29. But no, my first recollection of harvest was a stationary harvester in the middle of the field with wagons and mules, and that’s enough of that conversation.
Jim Morris: Oh, boy.
Sandy Denn: Other than that, the modern combines, I remember lots of open air combines, so they weren’t enclosed in cabs when it was a north windy day and lots of dust and lots of rice dust, you inhaled it. The new ones are just unbelievable and, of course, now with computers, it’s wonderful. It takes all the guess work out, and it makes you a better master of your craft.
Jim Morris: Wasn’t the rice actually bagged in the field over a period of time early on or do I have that wrong?
Sandy Denn: Nope, that’s correct. That was when the stationary harvester was used. Rice was kind of bundled in chocks when you see pictures of cornfields in the Midwest in the old days. Then, those chocks of rice were thrown onto a wagon. The wagon, pulled by mules, took it to the center of the field to the combine that then separated the grain from the stems, and it was bagged. There were two men usually on the combine, one to bag it and the other one to sew the bags closed.
Jim Morris: Oh my goodness, and you also have a law degree. So, tell me how that came about.
Sandy Denn: Well, paying lawyer bills, I can do this. It was sort of like the flying. It was something that appealed to me from an early age. I don’t know why, but there were legal matters when I was a child, and I enjoyed hearing the lawyers when we would go and talk to them about either contracts or family matters and so forth. I really admired their ability to narrow issues down, to look at all sides of a question, and I wanted to get better at that.
I’d wanted to do it, but my life never allowed the time. One day when I was 61 years old, Wally said to me, “Are you ever going to get that law degree? If you’re not, that’s fine, but let’s quit talking about it.” So, I went and took the LSAT and made enough of a point to be able to get into law school, and that’s history. So, at age 65, I got my law degree.
Jim Morris: So, one of the things I’m hearing is people should look at farmers maybe and not assume that they haven’t had a high degree of education or they’re just spending all their time on the farm. You’re doing the aerobatics in the air, well that’s a good place to do aerobatics, and you have a law degree, and tell me about your fleet of corgis, please.
Sandy Denn: Well, a fleet of corgis is a bit like herding cats, but they’re so much fun!
Glynnis. Dieter, are you being silent? What a good boy. What a good boy he is. You see, ladies? That’s how you’re supposed to behave.
They’re just absolutely the finest pet animal a person could ever have if you have ever raised children. If you’ve never raised children, corgis might be a handful. But if you’ve raised children, you can handle corgis. They are loving, they’re comedians. If you don’t give them a job to do, they’ll dream up one. So, you stay busy when you have corgis. They’re just delightful.
Jim Morris: Interesting to have them on a rice farm because you often see other larger dogs. So, a corgi could, I think, potentially get lost in the rice field, or how do they navigate a rice field I should ask you.
Sandy Denn: Well when the rice is this maturity and close to harvest, it’s quite tall. I several times look around and I can see the rice moving, and I know there’s a corgi under there somewhere.
Jim Morris: You and Wally are transitioning a little bit, I believe, after this harvest. Tell me a little bit about what that may look like.
Sandy Denn: Well basically in a nutshell, we’re downsizing. We are not youngsters anymore. It would be nice to have more free time. So, we are going to downsize and have less of a yard and maintenance and also farm a lot less than what we’re farming now. Just how we’re going to accomplish that, we’re working on at this time.
Jim Morris: This is incredibly labor intensive, but I think there’s probably a lot of joy that you and Wally get from this. So, as you’re downsizing, what have these past decades meant to you in terms of farming rice and some of the things that you’ve perhaps learned from it?
Sandy Denn: Oh, boy. The lifestyle is everything. That’s the biggest takeaway I have from rice farming and living on the farm, being in the country. I started living in the country on the ranch that we’re going to move to, and it is a lifestyle I couldn’t give up easily. So, it’s kind of a compromise. It’s downsizing, but still doing the same things, enjoying the same outdoors life, and being outdoors whenever we want to be outdoors, and being able to go for a walk out through the fields, enjoying the fresh air and the seasons.
You mentioned the seasons. I agree, I think they do change in California. It’s just much more subtle than what you confront in other states that have the snow and ice and so forth. We want to stay in the area. So, with our downsizing, we’ll just be doing the same thing, but on a much smaller scale.
Jim Morris: Well, the Sacramento Valley is underrated, I believe. North of Sacramento people don’t know much about it, but the quality of life is fantastic.
Sandy Denn: Oh, it is. It is. I had people ask me at one time when I was alone on the farm here, “Well, why don’t you just sell the whole thing and move to the city? Get a nice little condo,” and blah, blah, blah.” I say, “You really don’t understand country living. I’m not civilized enough to live in town.”
Jim Morris: The one and only Sandy Denn, you are awesome. If you head North of Sacramento this time of the year, you might still see harvesters working rice fields. However, you have through winter to see beautiful, boisterous snow geese that were the perfect name for Sandy and Wally’s farm. And as photographer Sharron Barker points out, these birds can provide an unforgettable memory if you know what to look for.
Sharron Barker: When they’re going to fly out to feed for the evening, huge numbers will be in a pond and all of a sudden, they’ll be calling each other, and you know something’s going to happen. They start moving around, and I’m there with my camera and all of a sudden, a mass of white will just fly up in front of you, and the sound is amazing. It’s like a miracle of nature. It’s just a beautiful thing to witness.Jim Morris: The wildlife refuges in our area are phenomenal. Take your family and friends this fall or winter. You won’t regret it. In fact, you can go to podcast.calrice.org and we will have information on local refuges. That’ll wrap up this episode of Ingrained. Thanks to all of those at Snow Goose Farms, Sandy, Wally, the corgis: Dieter, Kyra, and Glynnis. We also appreciate help from Sharron Barker, Page Design, Social Crows, Unearth Digital Media, and Kurt Richter. Again, you can go to podcast.calrice.org to leave feedback and questions. We welcome all of those. Thanks for listening.