Rice farmers are running about a week ahead of schedule this year because of dry conditions this spring.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that so far this year, about 75 percent of California’s rice fields have been planted. That number was only 14 percent in mid-May 2012.
“It’s been a great season to be a rice farmer. We got to start early, have a nice easy pace,” said Nicolaus rice farmer Mike Daddow, of Daddow and Sons Farming. “Now, the ground crew’s done. So we’re just managing water and ordering seed.”
Dipping low into the rice fields, crop-duster pilots are dropping seed, herbicides and pesticides from the crack of dawn until sunset, for the fall crop. Depending on the type of airplane and field, planes can drop up to 160 pounds of soaked rice seeds per acre.
Farm Air Flying Services in south Sutter County said in a press release, with some chemicals, it’s illegal to fly higher than 10 feet, as breezes or wind can disrupt the spray line. With seed drops, planes fly at least as high as a telephone pole.
“Rice in California is one of the largest aerially-seeded crops in the United States,” California Rice Commission spokesman Jim Morris said, adding the practice has been around since about the late 1940s to early 1950s, with one report stating it began in 1928. “It’s GPS-guided — it’s extremely accurate.”
California has some 550,000 acres of rice, the commission said, with 97 percent of it growing in the Sacramento Valley. About half of California’s crop is exported, Morris said, going to Japan, South Korea and the Middle East.
Rice farming systems adviser Chris Greer with the UC Cooperative Extension is working regionally to evaluate new rice varieties coming from the breeding program at the Rice Experiment Station in Biggs.
To test various environments, workers are hand-planting up to 144 plots measuring 10 feet by 20 feet at eight locations.
“Some people put on the long hip waders … I wear shorts and the diving booties,” Greer said. “If we’re efficient and nothing goes wrong … we can plant one of these large trials, with four or five people … four hours to get everything wrapped up.”
Up to 90 percent of commercial rice is developed at the station, he said.
The station’s director, Dr. Kent McKenzie, said breeders pick out experimental lines that look promising, and in cooperation with the university, are planted to see if they work, or should be discarded.
112,000 acres in Sutter County, valued at $179 million.
38,000 acres in Yuba County, valued at $62 million.