S1 E9: Raining Rice in the Sacramento Valley

It’s an annual occurrence throughout the Sacramento Valley; something countless motorists have seen while heading north of Sacramento – skilled pilots flying high-speed, GPS-guided airplanes, planting rice over a half-million acres of fields.

Rick Richter of Richter Aviation in Maxwell, Colusa County, has been seeding rice fields since 1979. It’s not only his profession, it’s also a great passion for him.

“It’s so rewarding to see that rice come up,” Richter remarked. “It’s a beautiful green within a week or two after you plant it, and the whole area turns into just a magic carpet. You watch it all summer long, and then it comes to a golden yellow/brown at harvest, and you just get that feeling that I did this. I provided part of this 500,000-acres in this valley for people around the world to use. It just hits home, I’ll tell you.”

May is a spectacularly busy month for rice seeding in California. Pilots frequently work before sunup and after sundown to keep up with the workload. 

One of the biggest advancements in this effort is Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, which provides tremendous accuracy for the pilots, who often exceed 100-mph while seeding fields. 

Safety is a crucial element for ag pilots, who operate under strict state and federal regulations.  Richter said an extremely helpful program is the Professional Aerial Applicator Support System (PASSS Program), which has been running for more than 20 years, and has proven to lower accident rates.

The role agricultural pilots play in farming is huge. Rice grower Kurt Richter relies on the pinpoint work of his cousin Rick and Rick’s son, Nick, to seed his rice fields.

“The pilot plays a huge role in the quality of the product that you’re going to put out at the end of the season,” Kurt said.  “The seed application just in and of itself is one of the most important applications of the year…. A good quality pilot can definitely make or break any particular crop.”

Here are more comments from Kurt on the important role agricultural pilots play:

For more information on agricultural pilots, here’s a link to the California Agricultural Aircraft Association.

Download Episode

Episode Transcript

Jim Morris: California rice holds many surprises. Whether it’s the vital wildlife connection, the scale and efficiency of growing and milling rice, or the billions of dollars this industry generates for our economy, the impacts are huge. One of the most surprising facets of California rice is happening here in mid spring, planting the crop via airplane, and it is an amazing process.

Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, and I’ve been helping farmers and ranchers tell their story for 30 years. I’m in the Sacramento Valley today covering an important part of the rice growing season.

Jim Morris: I’m in Colusa County speaking with Rick Richter of Richter Aviation, and you’ve been an ag pilot for more than 40 years. Let’s start with the early days. What was your background and what interested you in this profession?

Rick Richter: Well Jim, I started out with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Agriculture from Chico State College. It was just so hard back then to try to get into farming, which was what I wanted to do. I had a passion for aviation, so I learned to fly while going to Chico State. When I got to Maxwell, I was looking for opportunities to work and my cousin had just started this business here east of Maxwell, crop dusting business, in 1976. It was perfect timing for me. I talked with him, Paul Richter, and he made a spot for me and we started loading airplanes, and from then it grew to flying their planes, and, three years later, in 1979 was my first a year as an ag pilot.

Jim Morris: And so 41 years in, that’s an amazing run. How many flights or hours would that be in the air?

Rick Richter: Jim, that’s about 22,000 hours to date, counting all my flying, which isn’t much in the general aviation side. It’s mostly ag flying.

Jim Morris: Do you ever have dreams about flying when you’re resting or can you leave the 9:00 to 5:00 at the office?

Rick Richter: It’s tough. It’s tough. This is our life this time of year. We do five months out here from May to August in the rice business. It’s a every day, 4:00 in the morning until dark. Sometimes in the summer, usually around the 4th of July, we’ll get a break and start getting Sundays off, so it’s kind of a treat for us.

Jim Morris: It is a busy time right now in the spring. Tell me what an average day looks like in terms of seeding the rice fields.

Rick Richter: Well we’re up at 4:00 in the morning, we’re here at 5:00 to 6:00, the crews roll in, we’re out on the jobs by 6:30 and from then until dark sometimes we’re out, depending on the workload.

Jim Morris: What happens when they’re seeding? You have a pre-germinated seed. I mean, just walk me through some of the major steps in it. It’s fascinating to see that seed being loaded. They’re working like an Indy pit crew, I think.

Rick Richter: Oh yeah, we pride ourselves on the speed that it takes, that we can get the load out. The seed is soaked for at least 24 hours prior to our applications. It’s brought to us in bulk trailers, bulk semi-truck trailers, to the airstrips, usually the closest strip within two miles of the field so we can make our turnarounds quicker and get more done.

Jim Morris: What speed can you travel? What’s the highest speed and what’s the lowest altitude you might be traveling depending on the circumstances of each rice farm?

Rick Richter: Well, we’re probably seeding rice about 30 feet in the air, depending on the wind. The windier conditions require a lower altitude, but spraying, we’re within 10 feet of the crop and going about 120 to 130 miles per hour on some of the more modern turbine aircraft. Some of the faster ones will go up to 150, and that’s moving fast compared to the old days when it was just 100 miles an hour in an old Ag Cat. The professional ag pilots that we have nowadays don’t leave anything for granted. We take pride in what we do and we want to be there for our children and our families at the end of the day.

Jim Morris: Talk about the change in technology since when you started and the importance of global positioning system, GPS.

Rick Richter: GPS is the biggest breakthrough that’s ever come to this industry, and it just changed it forever. It’s amazing we can get within three feet of our swath and multiple swaths at a time, the fields all laid out for us, hardly any problems. It’s just amazing what it did. It took away the job from the flaggers and the crews that we had to position on each field, and it allowed it for much more efficiency in the operation.

Jim Morris: The term crop duster comes up a lot, much more than the term ag pilot. What’s the name that you think is most fitting?

Rick Richter: Crop duster is just an old moniker from the back of the old days when they dusted crops. But nowadays they’re professional pilots. We are required to have training, continuing education every year, licensed by the state, licensed by the Federal Aviation Regulations as commercial pilots. And the operators are actually licensed as commercial ag operators. So there’s plenty of regulation in our business. We take it in stride. We understand that we need to have that to keep our skills honed and to protect the crop protection materials.

Jim Morris: You have the good fortune of working with your son. When did that start and how does that make you feel, because you’re getting closer to retirement?

Rick Richter: It just makes me feel great. He’s such a major link in this operation. We’re getting in the process of turning it over to him. It’s kind of hard for me to let go of the reins. The good thing about it, he understands that, and he’s taking that in stride. He knows that someday it’ll be all his to worry about.

Jim Morris: This is Nick, and you have a traditional looking yellow airplane and he has a white one that looks a little different. Now I’m no aviation expert. Tell me the difference of what you fly and what Nick flies.

Rick Richter: Well I’m flying a 1979 biplane, and he’s flying a 2011 Thrush S2R with a Pratt Whitney engine on it. It goes faster. It carries the same amount of speed, but it’s a sleeker, modern-looking airplane, probably the wave of the future. The old biplanes are kind of being in a thing of the past, but they’re good, strong, sturdy airplanes and they’re more suited to our country where the fields are maybe smaller. You can get a tighter turn out of it. But he enjoys that speed and the wider swath that he gets with the larger wing on that airplane.

Jim Morris: With the COVID-19 crisis, agriculture has rightly been deemed an essential industry. And, of course, it’s easy here in Maxwell to see that with farms and farm-related industries. But what’s your comment about the value of agriculture to California?

Rick Richter: It’s worth so much to our economy here in California. I’m not sure of the numbers, but just the rice business alone contribute so much to the local economy. Everybody’s job in this area depends on rice.

Jim Morris: How do you feel when people are eating a rice bowl or risotto, paella, sushi, et cetera, you had a hand in that?

Rick Richter: Well, I sure did. I’ve been to restaurants in the South that have used California medium grain rice in their sushi. I tell them all about it. I say, “Hey, I know where that came from.”

Jim Morris: Rick, tell me a little bit about your level of pride. You’re coming to the end of your career. You’ve done a lot. You and other ag pilots have done a lot to keep rice on tables.

Rick Richter: It’s so rewarding to see that rice come up and, it’s beautiful green after you plant it within a week or two, and the whole area turns into just a magic carpet. You watch it all summer long, and then it comes to golden yellow-brown at harvest. And you just get that feeling that I did this. I provided part of this 500,000-acres in this valley for the people around the world to use. And it’s just, it hits home, I’ll tell you.

Jim Morris: Farming in California is all about family and there are connections even between growers and pilots. I’m visiting with Kurt Richter, rice grower. Tell me your connection with Rick Richter.

Kurt Richter: Well, Rick is a cousin of ours. We share a common ancestor that was actually our original immigrant to California from the area that’s now known as Germany. Rick and my father, Paul Richter, were connected from childhood all the way up. Rick has always done all the applications for our family’s farming operation.

Jim Morris: How important are the pilots to what you do?

Kurt Richter: A pilot plays a huge role in the quality of the product that you’re going to put out at the end of the season. The seed application just in and of itself is one of the most important applications of the year. For the application to be done in a nice, even way where it’s spread out, no skips, no overlaps, no bunching coming out of the bottom of the airplane, so a good quality pilot can definitely make or break any particular crop.

Jim Morris: Planting season’s never easy. There’s always hurdles to clear, but how are things going?

Kurt Richter: It has definitely been a year of hurdles. We faced water cuts early and made it past that hurdle. Then we faced aqua shortages and we’ve now passed that hurdle. And now we’ve got rain, so it’s just, any given week, any number of issues that can crop up, but we’re used to this in California rice. We’ve battled out the weather many times in the last few years and all these other problems are things that come up from time to time. And so you just have to have contingency plans and a strategy for how to work around those issues. And, for our operation at least, I feel like we’ve done pretty well. We’re on track to be wrapped up here very soon.

Jim Morris: After planting, it does not take long for the rice plants to emerge. So, throughout the summer, when you’re heading north of Sacramento, keep an eye out for those beautiful green rice fields. That wraps up this episode. Thanks so much to Rick Richter of Richter Aviation and Kurt Richter of Richter Ag for their insight. A reminder that there’s much more at podcast.calrice.org, including photos and video of rice seeding. Please subscribe to our podcast and send us your questions and comments. Thanks for listening.