Tractors are working ground, airplanes are flying and mills are in full production, marking another busy spring in Sacramento Valley rice country.
There are marked differences this year compared to recent history, starting with the weather. A dryer spring has enabled growers to get a much earlier start on working ground for planting.
“We’re probably two-and-a-half, maybe close to three weeks ahead of where we were last year,” remarked grower Mike DeWit. “I don’t know what a normal year is anymore, but we’re at least two weeks ahead.”
GPS-guided tractors and airplanes help rice growers be as efficient as they can – getting the most out of resources including water and maximizing production. For consumers, that translates into a consistent supply of premium-quality rice.
2020 will long be remembered globally for COVID-19. While the important work of sheltering in place continues, farmers and mills are carefully proceeding with their vital work of producing food. Rice is deemed as an essential industry in California, as is agriculture as a whole. Many steps have been taken at the farm and mill level to protect employees.
“My foreman, Luis Beltran has been with me for 12 years now, and has taken the COVID situation real seriously,” DeWit said. “He’s got the Clorox wipes. He’s got the nitrile gloves. He’s got everything the guys need, and makes sure they’re well supplied in the tractors.”
On rice farms, social distancing is the norm. Tractor operators frequently work fields spanning hundreds of acres with no other workers nearby.
Rice mills have also adapted rigorous additional steps for employee safety.
“We have stepped up our sanitation, we have people who now their sole purpose is to sanitize and disinfect all surfaces in the facility,” said Jennifer Kalfsbeek, Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer at Sun Valley Rice in Colusa County, one of more than a dozen rice mills in the Sacramento Valley. “We’ve actually put up some clear window barriers in places where truck drivers would be in contact with our employees. We have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. We’ve expanded our supply vendors to meet our needs, so we have added additional sanitation pumps throughout the facility, and increased sanitizing our truck driver areas.”
Kalfsbeek added that there is some natural social distancing in the mill. They have also staggered breaks and lunch times to help maintain social distancing.
The consumer response to COVID-19 has included less demand for rice from restaurants and much more demand at retail. Kalfsbeek said retail orders have started to slow and consumers should soon begin seeing more rice in supermarkets.
Here’s a link to more information on employee safety on California rice farms and mills.
Jim Morris: Springtime in the Sacramento Valley means it’s rice planting time. I’m in Robbins in Sutter County as tractors are working ground, and a new crop will soon be planted. Welcome to Ingrained, The California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris. This is my 30th year working with farmers and ranchers to help tell their stories.
Jim Morris: Today I’m in Sutter County, and especially during this period of incredible challenge with COVID-19 it is so nice to see growers getting fields ready for a new season. This is a brief field trip with plenty of social distancing. Agriculture in California is essential and designated as such. So with proper precautions, farmers and mills are continuing their important work. I’m with grower Mike Dewit. Mike, we have tractors working. What’s happening today?
Mike DeWit: Well, we’re on our third operation across this field, just trying to dry up the ground. What we’re doing now is a chisel plow, and we’re just getting that last little bit of moisture exposed to these nice warm days we’ve had the last few days.
Jim Morris: What other steps will need to take place before you plant the rice this year?
Mike DeWit: This particular field, we will disc it one more time just to smooth out some of those bigger clods that are out there. Then we’ll level it one time with a GPS scraper. Then we’ll apply the fertilizer, the water, and plant it. I’ve got May 5, May 6 in mind for a planting date. So, it’s another three weeks of groundwork. Mostly it’s just time letting the ground dry up.
Jim Morris: You mentioned GPS, there is a lot of high-tech equipment being used. Can you comment about that?
Mike DeWit: Yeah. It’s a GPS scraper that we roll across the field, and it’s just a scraper. What it does is, the GPS system tells the scraper itself when to cut ground, when to fill ground. It’s all done by the GPS, and it just takes a good operator, and drive a straight line, and it happens.
Jim Morris: But also airplanes use GPS, and I mean the technology has really changed over the decades, hasn’t it?
Mike DeWit: It’s been incredible this GPS technology. It’s allowed us to save money and fuel because the tractor drives a straighter line. It’s allowed us to have precisely leveled fields with the scrapers. The airplanes, it’s eliminated a lot of their labor force because they can do it without the flaggers at the end of the fields. It’s been incredible, and again, there’s so much more to it that I’m not in tuned with. I’m old school. I like doing things the old way, but I sure see the benefits, and I’ve reaped the benefits. I just got to learn it.
Jim Morris: More rice for consumers, and also more efficient water use?
Mike DeWit: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. It’s cut our water use quite a bit with the precision leveling. We don’t have the high spots that we need to cover. We can have the straight contours, and our checks make them perfect rectangles. It’s just been a benefit to everybody involved.
Jim Morris: This is a much different year than we’ve had in recent years. Tell me about the timeframe that you’ve seen so far, and how helpful that is.
Mike DeWit: We’re probably two-and-a-half, maybe close to three weeks ahead of where we were last year. I don’t know what a normal year is anymore, but we’re at least two weeks ahead.
Jim Morris: You mentioned your workers, and we have a wide open area here in Sutter County. Tell me a little bit about your care for the workers, not only now, but in this COVID-19 era.
Mike DeWit: We’re well prepared. I appreciate these guys. I can’t do it without them. I have one in particular, my foreman, Luis Beltran, he’s like a brother to me. He’s been with me for 12 years now, and has taken the COVID situation real seriously. He’s got the Clorox wipes. He’s got the nitrile gloves. He’s got everything the guys need, and makes sure they’re well supplied in the tractors.
Jim Morris: Social distancing in the city and the country possibly look a little differently, particularly out here in rice country. Tell me what social distancing looks like here in Robbins.
Mike DeWit: Well, if you had a camera right now, you could look around. I’ve got one guy on this tractor in a 300-acre field, and just to the east of him there’s another guy on a tractor in a 300-acre field, so they’re no closer than a half mile apart at any given time during the day.
Jim Morris: What’s the timeframe then once that crop is planted? Will you be harvesting, and are you optimistic based on the weather we’ve had at least to date?
Mike DeWit: I’m very optimistic. The weather’s been pretty good. We had little rain showers come through here a couple weeks ago, but we’ve gotten past that. Again, we’re two, three weeks ahead. A May 10, May 15 planting date would mean about a October 1 beginning of the harvest. That’s real encouraging.
Jim Morris: We follow our farm visit with a second part of producing rice in California, a visit to a mill in the Sacramento Valley. I’m speaking with Jennifer Kalfsbeek, Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer at Sun Valley Rice in Colusa County. Jennifer, from a rice mill perspective, what are some of the new steps that are underway to help with employee safety in this era of COVID-19?
Jennifer Kalfsbeek: Well, being a food manufacturing facility, we always have good manufacturing practices in place. However, we have stepped up our sanitation, we have people who now their sole purpose is to sanitize and disinfect all surfaces in the facility. We’ve actually put up some clear window barriers in places where truck drivers would be in contact with our employees. We have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. We’ve expanded our supply vendors to meet our needs, so we have added additional sanitation pumps throughout the facility, and increased sanitizing our truck driver areas.
Jim Morris: People who may not be familiar with a rice mill, they’re a little different than perhaps some of the other food plants in California. There’s a lot of mechanization, et cetera. I know there are a lot of people that work here, but is there some natural social distancing that often occurs here?
Jennifer Kalfsbeek: Yes. In the rice mill we actually only have about four people. It’s three stories, and so they’re not close to one another. We’ve actually staggered a lot of the breaks and lunch times to help practice with these social distancing rules.
Jim Morris: Something else that’s unusual right now is, there is a lot less activity with restaurants and food service. There’s a lot more activity, and a lot of demand with supermarkets. What kind of a challenge is that for a mill to try to meet that changing situation with consumers?
Jennifer Kalfsbeek: There has been a decline in the restaurant business. However, with everybody cooking at home, there is a large demand on the retail side.
Jim Morris: I think this is most likely short term. I know that we have the capability of shipping a lot of rice to market, so are you hopeful that in the near term there will be more rice available at market?
Jennifer Kalfsbeek: Yes, and we’re starting to see that today. That we aren’t getting as many orders as we were about three weeks ago. This week we’re starting to see a little bit of slowdown for these orders.Jim Morris: That wraps up this episode of Ingrained. Thank you to Mike Dewit and Jennifer Kalfsbeek for taking the time to visit with us. Go to podcast.calrice.org to find out much more, and we would love to hear from you as well. Thanks for listening.