Rice: It’s one of the major food staples of the world. It’s one of the first foods most of of eat as babies. It’s ubiquitous in many varieties of ethnic cooking. And yet, most of us (well, at least we’re speaking for the Jolly Tomato here) don’t have any clue how it’s grown. So with lots of questions on our mind, we headed off to Lundberg Family Farms last weekend as a guest of the California Farm Water Coalition to visit Lundberg’s rice-growing operation and to learn more about this major crop.
Lundberg is a family-run operation (since 1937) with old-fashioned values and a commitment to sustainability and ecological preservation. Currently, the third generation of Lundbergs is running the operation and promoting its “eco-positive” farming techniques while breaking ground on new products to appeal to the growing gluten-free market.
Lundberg grows about 17 varieties of rice on a series of family farms in the area. About 70 percent of their production is organic; the other 30 percent is what they call “eco-farming,” which means crop rotations, no carcinogens, no use of genetically modified seeds, and no burning of the rice straw after harvest.
Most people think of rice as a water-wasting crop, but Bryce Lundberg, the company’s VP for agriculture and a grandson of the original farmers, tells us that’s not true: “Rice produces 8,000 pounds per acre – you can get a lot of servings out of that,” he says. “It’s actually very efficient per serving per gallon of water.”
One key element to the success of these rice fields is the type of soil on the farm, which is located in the heart of farm country about an hour north of Sacramento. The top layer of soil is a dense, heavy clay that dries hard in the sun. Below that is a level of hardpan that holds in the water “like a swimming pool,” according to Lundberg. That means you can get a lot of bang for your buck for the water you use. (If you want to learn more about water usage in rice crops, check out this handy information from the California Rice Commission and these frequently asked questions from the California Farm Water Coalition.)
Aside from the food resources that a rice field provides, it also creates a healthy habitat for waterfowl. “About 90 percent of the wetlands in California have been lost, but the rice fields work as wetlands,” notes Lundberg. Birds such as geese and ducks feed on the leftover rice and insects, and they nest in the cover crops that are planted in the field over the winter. In springtime, Lundberg Family Farms leads a project called Egg Aid, in which volunteers and local students come to the rice farms to collect mallard eggs that have been laid in the fields and bring them to a hatchery so they are protected before the fields are mowed.
So how does rice grow? In the springtime when the seeds are planted, the fields are flooded with water. The rice plants, which look kind of like wheat, grow throughout the heat of the summer and reach a height of about 3 feet. In the fall, the fields are drained and the rice is harvested. As the massive combine harvester slices through rows and rows of arborio rice plants, it separates the grain from the straw and blows the grains of rice into a collector on top while the straw falls down below. After the harvest, the rice is carefully dried, and then it goes off to the mill (the Lundbergs run their own mill) to take the hull off the rice. Brown rice is produced when just the outer husk is removed; white rice is produced by removing the bran layers so only the inner grain is left.
The rice is then packaged or made into additional rice products. After our group visited the field, we walked through the rice cake factory, where we watched little patties of rice get heated up for 15 seconds or so until – poof! – they puffed up like popcorn and then rolled down the assembly line for inspection and packaging.
Love to eat rice? Lots of families eat brown rice as a good source of whole grains. But many parents have questions about serving rice to their kids after reading recent news about arsenic in rice. Lundberg has a whole Q-and-A on this topic if you want to know more, but the bottom line is that the FDA is not recommending that people change their rice-eating habits based on the preliminary data they are seeing about arsenic levels in rice. For some outside information, check out this helpful dietary guide relating to arsenic/rice concerns from Dr. Alan Greene and Ashley Koff, R.D.
So what’s the bottom line on our visit? Now that we’ve been to a rice farm, we’re thinking about rice a little differently. Whereas in the past we used to imagine those grains as having been flooded in a monsoon-soaked field, we now picture those long grains of rice swaying in the breeze over hard-packed clay. And now that we’ve seen first-hand the health and vibrance of an organic or non-GMO rice field, it’s hard to imagine rice grown any other way. When we’re shopping for rice at the supermarket, we’re more likely to look for either the Lundberg name or some other sign that the rice was grown and tended with care for both the environment and the final product.
Stay tuned tomorrow for a special Halloween-themed rice recipe.