S1 E5: Hard Work, Done Right

California rice has been grown for more than a century, and is known worldwide for consistently high quality and steady production. A lot of factors contribute to that reputation, including many people working hard behind the scenes.

Gustavo Mendieta arrived in the Sacramento Valley with his family from Mexico in the 1970s, seeking opportunity. They found it, first working on a tomato farm in Colusa. Since that time, Gustavo has logged 42 years working on rice farms, most recently at Montna Farms in Sutter County.

Gustavo helps maintain the dryer at Montna Farms, which requires a lot of attention to make sure the grain is properly stored. He said people are surprised to learn that harvested rice still has a protective hull on it, which is then removed by mills before eventually heading to restaurants and supermarkets.

His hard work and dedication have brought ample rewards. Gustavo said his salary has provided well for his family, including higher education and a great career path for his children.

“My oldest daughter works for Gridley High School,” Gustavo remarked. “My oldest son is a correctional officer in Vacaville. My daughter Karen is getting a Master’s Degree to become a social worker. And Alex, my youngest son, is in his last year in high school, and would like to become a highway patrol officer.”

Gustavo said, if he had to do it all over again, he would take the same path.

“I think I did the right thing all of the time,” he said. “I found a place in the last two years like the one I worked before for 40 years. I’m happy to work with these really, really good people.”


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Episode Transcript

 Jim Morris: Grown on a half million acres in the Sacramento Valley. More than 4 billion pounds produced each year, providing 25,000 jobs and $5 billion to our economy annually. Habitat for 230 wildlife species, providing 61 percent of the fall and winter diet for millions of ducks and geese. Some of the facts and figures of how rice benefits California. As with any business, hardworking people are critical to success. Time to visit with someone who’s devoted much of his life to rice, doing his job with professionalism, and a smile.

Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris. I’ve been working with farmers and ranchers for nearly 30 years, and I’m very passionate about those who produce our food. I’m in Gridley, one of my favorite towns in the Sacramento Valley. It’s off of Highway 99. A little while ago I saw sunset along the Feather River, and now I’m visiting with Gustavo Mendieta of Montna farms. Thank you so much Gustavo, for having me in your home. How long have you lived in Gridley, and what do you like about the community?

Gustavo Mendieta: I’ve been here for 42 years in this town, and I like it because this town is really quiet and really good people around, you know.

Jim Morris: And, how long have you worked in rice, and what are some of the jobs that you did at an early stage?

Gustavo Mendieta: When we early here in this country, we lived in Colusa County and we working on growing tomatoes. So, two, three years later, we come to Gridley, and then soon we get here, I started working for a rice company in Marysville. So, I’ve been there for 40 years.

Jim Morris: What have you seen over the decades about the hard work that it takes to get that food produced?

Gustavo Mendieta: Yeah, it’s a long process, you know, to grow the rice, and a really hard job because everything is sometimes under the water, sometimes long hours, because you have to watch all the time and take care of it, the crop, the production. To have it okay all the time until it goes to the mill.

Jim Morris: You are going to be busy soon, once the tractors get in the fields and start to work the next crop. So, how do things change, and when do they change? When does the calendar get really busy?

Gustavo Mendieta: April and May is the time when everybody start to grow, to start planting the rice in the fields. You know, you saw those airplanes you see, flying on top, doing the fertilizer and seeding the fields.

Jim Morris: What area do you work in, and what are some of your responsibilities currently at Montna Farms?

Gustavo Mendieta: My area is in the rice dryer. And, what we do there is receiving all the rice coming from the fields and the storage there for the whole year. So, the rice coming from the field is coming around 23 percent, 24 percent of the moisture. So, we have to run through the dryer six or seven passes to make it 18 percent to storage the whole year. Not really the whole year, but it has to be there until we shipping everything out to the mills.

Jim Morris: So, when rice is harvested, it is rough rice, it has a protective hull on it, it can be stored, if properly, for a very long period of time. And then as the mill needs that rice, it is then trucked to the mill and it’s milled and then it goes off to supermarkets, restaurants, et cetera. And, what kind of responsibility do you have, do you feel, when you are protecting that investment that took a lot of energy to get?

Gustavo Mendieta: Well, the problem is, all depend on weather. If the weather is too wet, like raining a lot, it’s hard to run the fans to keep the rice cold and safe. So, you have to watch all the time the weather. When is a real good time to run the fans? Why? Because it’s too foggy, you bring moisture to inside and you lose the rice. If the north wind blowing, you dry too much the rice and the mills don’t like it. So that you can lose the quality of the rice. So, you have to watch the whole place 24 hours all the time.

Jim Morris: So it’s not a nine to five job. So, have you had times at night when you’re worried about something and you’re thinking about … Or maybe even having to take action to protect the crop?

Gustavo Mendieta: Yeah. Sometimes, when I was working in another company for forty years, the weather made me wake up one o’clock in the morning and drive all the way down there and make sure everything close, everything safe, because the hard wind blow the roof off the storage bins. So, you have to make sure soon after the hard wind or the hard rain, you want to make sure everything closed. But, you find something getting wet and before you get there, right away you have to start to run that storage bin to different bin to keeping the rice safe. Otherwise you lose the whole bin. A lot of money invested there.

Jim Morris: Wow. So, something to think about before you have your next a sushi roll or rice bowl. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes. And, tell me a little bit about before you came to California, where were you born? Where did you grow up? And tell me a little bit about that location.

Gustavo Mendieta: So, I was born 1963, and my mother take us, you know, the whole family to United States in 1976. Yeah. So, we come in and live in Colusa County before, and then we moved to Gridley.

Jim Morris: You’ve spent your entire professional life working on rice farms. How has that impacted your family?

Gustavo Mendieta: Ah, really good, you know. Because, when I barely start on the rice, you getting paid good money because you work long hours. So, you can get paid for the extra hours. You use that extra money to have a good education for the kids, you know. Like, my older daughter, she worked for the Gridley education place in high school. And my older son, he works for Vacaville. He’s a correctional officer. And Karen, my daughter, she’s getting the master degree for social work. And Alex, my son, he’s in high school, the last year in high school. He would like to become a CHP. So, the opportunity to work on rice production, I got enough money to give a really good education to all my kids. So, everybody’s really good now.

Jim Morris: I love it. And how proud, how excited are you going to be when those graduations happen?

Gustavo Mendieta: You know, I’m going to be very happy because there’s only one more. The other three already graduated. So, one more. And I want to feel like the best in this world.

Jim Morris: Well, I say congratulations to you. So, if you had to rewind and start it all again, would you do it the same way?

Gustavo Mendieta: Oh yeah. Yeah. I start the same. You know, I think I do the right thing all the time. The last two years I thought I can find another place like the one I work for forty years better than that. And I have it. So, for the last two years, I find another place where I be happy to work for. And it’s really, really, really good people there.

Jim Morris: A lot of people like rice, but they’ve never been to a rice farm. So, what are a few things that might surprise people about rice?

Gustavo Mendieta: Well, the surprise of the people, they don’t know we have around 20 to 30 varieties, different kinds, short grain, long grain, medium grain. You know, they call 401, Calhikari, all kinds of, you know, varieties. Everybody thinks when they hear the name of rice, they think the rice is only one thing. No. It’s a lot of varieties. And also, when the people stop to see how we’re working on the dryer, they like to see the rice white already, ready to eat. And no, it still has a long process to have on the stores.

Jim Morris: So, you’re around rice all the time. Do you still eat rice?

Gustavo Mendieta: Oh yeah. Yeah. You know, I love the rice because give me the opportunity to do a lot of good things for my family. Plus, my wife cooks the rice really good, so I love it. They call Mexican rice, so they cook with tomatoes and juice to put some water there and turn the color like jello. It is the same kind of rice everybody eats in the restaurants. So, really good taste.

Jim Morris: How long do you feel you’ll be working before you retire?

Gustavo Mendieta: I like to be there forever. If I were, you know, with good health for 10, 15 years is going to be okay.

Jim Morris: And, with people like Gustavo, that level of dedication and attention to detail, it’s one of many reasons to be optimistic moving forward. That wraps up this episode. Thank you to Gustavo Mendieta of Montna farms, Page Design, Social Crows, Unearth Digital Media, and special thanks to rice grower and podcaster Kurt Richter, who’s provided a lot to this effort, including the introduction of this episode. You can go to Podcast.CalRice.org to find out much more and to subscribe. Thanks for listening.