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 what happens on a rice farm. So with lots of questions on our mind, we headed off to Lundberg Family Farms’ rice-growing operation last weekend.
(Disclosure: We attended as guest of the California Farm Water Coalition. We did not receive compensation for this post. All opinions expressed are our own.)
Lundberg Family Farms
Lundberg is a family-run rice farm (since 1937) with old-fashioned values and a commitment to sustainability and ecological preservation. Currently, the third generation of Lundbergs runs the operation and promotes 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.” This means crop rotations, no carcinogens, no use of genetically modified seeds, and no burning of the rice straw after harvest.
Is Rice A “Thirsty” Crop?
Most people think of rice as a water-wasting crop. Nevertheless, 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.
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. This program brings volunteers and local students to the rice farms to collect mallard eggs that have been laid in the fields. The volunteers then bring them to a hatchery to protect them from the farm machinery.
The Rice-Growing Process
So how does rice grow? In the springtime workers plant the seeds and flood the fields 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, workers drain the fields and harvest the rice. The massive combine harvester slices through rows and rows of arborio rice plants. At the same time, it separates the grain from the straw and blows the grains of rice into a collector, dropping the straw down below. After the harvest, workers dry the rice, and then send it off to the mill (the Lundbergs run their own mill) to take the hull off the rice. To produce brown rice, workers remove just the outer husk. To produce white rice, workers remove the bran layers so only the inner grain is left.
Lundberg then either packages the rice or makes it into additional rice products. After our group visited the field, we walked through the rice cake factory. There we watched little patties of rice get heated up for 15 seconds or so until – poof! – they puffed up like popcorn. Then they rolled down the assembly line for inspection and packaging.
Serving Rice at Home
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. That said, the bottom line is that the FDA is not recommending any change in rice-eating habits based on the preliminary data they are seeing about arsenic levels in rice.
So what’s the bottom line on our visit? Now that we’ve been to a rice farm, we think 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 know 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 shop for rice at the supermarket, we tend 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.
P.S. Love rice? You’re going to love our spooky rice ghosts for Halloween.