Working the Land
In late February, ground preparation commences. Tractors tow steel discs to loosen and aerate the soil. Tractors then tow a succession of rigs until the earth is ground to the proper consistency for a fine and level seedbed. Levees are pulled up to delineate the borders of each rice paddy within the field. To control and conserve the flow of water from one paddy to the next, a wooden box is placed in each levee to manage the water depth. Ditches are pulled to deliver water quickly and efficiently over the field.
In mid April, flooding of the rice fields begins. Our farm is located in an area where the soil type is described as “adobe.” This quality is typically considered undesirable in agriculture because of its poor drainage properties. However, for rice cultivation, this characteristic helps reduce water usage.
Two days before a field is completely flooded, preparation of the rice seed begins. Seed is transferred from storage tanks to trucks mounted with steel boxes. The rice is soaked in water for 24 hours and then drained for 24 hours. This process increases the weight of the seed and stimulates germination. The heavy seed will now sink when sown onto the field by airplanes.
Unlike the majority of rice growers who purchase their seed from outside sources, we operate our own in-house seed development program to maintain the integrity of our original seed strains and evaluate new varieties. Good water management is important in weed control, a major challenge in growing rice. Fine tuning water levels effectively discourages particular weeds. Judicious use of appropriate herbicides is made when deemed necessary.
By late June, the fields are lush vistas of verdant green. White cranes and dark-hued ibis, amongst numerous other species of birds, dot the landscape in high contrast. In late July, heads of rice begin to emerge from the plant. Each head, or panicle, is comprised of many potential grains of rice which must first flower and self-pollinate. As the kernels within the husks mature, the grains of rice change from green to golden ochre. In mid August, the rice fields are drained in order to dry the soil sufficiently for rice harvesters to enter the field.
Bringing in the Harvest
In early September, the harvesters begin their work. These large machines slowly cut the rice, thresh the stalks, and separate the grain. Rice is stored internally, while straw and debris are discarded from the rear. When a harvester reaches its storage capacity, a “bankout” wagon comes along side in the field to receive the rice from the harvester. The bankout wagon returns to the roadside for unloading into trucks that will deliver the paddy rice to the farm. Harvesting the crop usually lasts until mid November.
The final stage of fieldwork entails dealing with the residue rice straw. Remaining straw is shredded, baled, or burned. Because of declining air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, we are aggressively phasing out burning as a method of straw disposal. Baled straw has uses as cattle bedding and for erosion control. Rice straw that is shredded can be worked back into the soil. After the straw has been addressed, tractors towing plows can now begin the fall season work of turning over the rice stubble in preparation for the next year’s crop.