Rice has been part of California’s agricultural landscape for more than a century. Think Rice says because the grain was a dietary staple for the Chinese immigrants that made their way to the United States to work in the gold mines and on the railroads, farmers in the late 1800s discovered they could make money raising and selling particular cash crops.
They also discovered California was the perfect place to grow them because it enjoyed the right weather conditions, with little rainfall, plenty of sunlight, and cooler nighttime temperatures, as studied by the University of California.
By 1912, California was harvesting commercial quantities of rice, and the state has since become the second-largest to grow rice in the country, with most of its rice fields located in northern California’s Central Valley. The amount of rice California grows in an average year makes the grain a big contributor to the state’s economy. In a good year, the region harvests $900 million worth of medium-grain Japonica rice.
However, 2022 is the latest in a string of dry years, a period not seen for at least 1,200 years. California’s drought means there is not enough water to grow rice, with the most recent dry spell only having ended in 2017. 64% of wells are at historic lows, and three out of 12 reservoirs are less than 25% full, all as the state has suffered more than 900 days of drought since February 2020.
This year, about 300,000 of the 550,000 California rice acres aren’t expected to report any yields. Colusa County didn’t plant rice in 84% of its lands, while Glenn lost 75% of its rice harvest. Together, the damage to both areas means a revenue loss of half a billion US dollars. Almost half of that loss is meant to be covered by federal crop insurance.
While two Northern California areas still have rice yields, Butte County and Yuba, because they draw their water from a different source, California’s rice industry can only rebound once the drought ends. Although the amount of rice acreage will probably increase after the drought, this year’s dramatic decline in acreage is definitely proving to be a difficult period for California rice and other resources.