Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Friday, 11 April 2008 12:28 UK

US rice growers go against the grain

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, California

On a broad fertile plain near Sacramento, ringed by snow-capped mountains, submerged rice fields shimmer in the sunlight and a small yellow plane buzzes 40ft above them.

Rice-planting is done from a great height in California

It comes into land and a conveyor belt starts up, carrying thousands of small light brown husks from a truck into a funnel-shaped container.

The funnel is lowered over the plane and its contents allowed to tumble into the hollow back-end.

The husks are, in fact, rice kernels, and at this farm in Northern California they sow rice seeds from the air, as they have done for 80 years. They are planting early this year.

The plane - guided by GPS - makes several low passes over the fields. Then, just like a crop-duster, it sprays its cargo of rice kernels into the water below.

Satellite navigation means the seeding runs do not overlap, so the rice seeds are not overcrowded or too far apart.

The technique allows these farmers to plant a large amount of rice quickly. In turn, about four months from now, it can all be harvested together.

We have taken our food supplies for granted
Tim Johnson, California Rice Commission

It's cost effective for them. Still, Zachary Dennis, whose family has farmed here for three generations, says they must innovate to survive.

"We have diversified. We grow trees, almonds and walnuts, and wheat," he says.

"But first and foremost, I'm a rice farmer and I will try to stick with this as long as I can.

"A few years ago, we would not have been able to make it with the prices we were getting," he says, citing petroleum, insurance and employment costs. "It's hard."

Grains and strains

Higher rice prices help farmers offset increasing production costs, and global rice prices have risen 20% since January. Yet even though the US is the world's fourth-largest rice exporter, California's crop does not feel the full benefit of the price rise.

That's because California grows short- and medium-grain rice, while 80% of global rice production and consumption is of the long-grain variety. (Arkansas, on the other hand, America's largest rice-growing state, produces long-grain).

When people talk of global shortages of rice, they usually mean shortages of long-grain rice.

Rice grains on a conveyor belt
The texture of Californian rice is not to everyone's taste

So could California simply export more rice to the countries where it is in great demand? It's not as simple as it sounds.

The major problem is culture. While Californian-style short- or medium-grain rice is a basic ingredient in sushi (and Japan buys much Californian rice), many other countries where rice is a staple prefer long-grain.

Whole cuisines have developed around this variety, which is cooked differently and can have a different texture and flavour. Cultural differences that stretch back thousands of years are not easy to break.

Secondly, long-grain rice prefers a tropical climate, not the more arid environment of California's rice fields.

However, it is possible to grow long-grain rice here, and Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission, says higher global prices offer his members an opportunity.

"Up to this point, growing long-grain was not as profitable as maybe growing medium-grain rice," he says. "I expect with the higher long-grain prices, we will see more acres in California go towards long-grain."

Sky-high prices

The growing production of ethanol is another factor affecting California's rice growers. With more farmland given over to corn to turn into biofuels, less is available for rice cultivation, so forcing prices up.

And then there's the basic reality that no increase in production by California's rice growers is going to make much of a dent in world demand.

Rick Richter, pilot
We never have gotten what we should be getting for these crops
Rick Richter, pilot

But Tim Johnson believes higher global demand for rice, and the problems this has caused in some places, is a sign of things to come.

"It's really a wake-up call that the everyday consumer can appreciate," he says.

"In the world, we have taken our food supplies for granted.

"Now with different cropping techniques, the loss of farmland and changing weather patterns, the once huge stocks of rice, wheat and corn that were the norm in the 1970s... they're just not there."

The implication is that we should not expect rice prices, and prices of other basic food crops, to come down soon.

Back on the farm, on a break from flying rice-seeding planes, one of the pilots, Rick Richter, is making the most of higher prices.

"We never have gotten what we should be getting for these crops, with the rising input [costs] and the work that goes into it," he says.

"So now we are getting up there, we are going to make a decent living like everybody else, and you know, that's what we have been waiting for."


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