October 31, 2014

31/10/2014: drought affects more than rice farmers, sushi lovers in California

California’s deepening drought is shrinking its rice harvest, and that is bad news for farmers, migratory birds and sushi lovers, reports Japan Times.

The US$5 billion industry exports rice to more than 100 countries and specializes in premium grains used in risotto, paella and sushi. Nearly all US sushi restaurants use medium-grain rice grown in the Sacramento Valley.
 


The rice harvest is just the latest victim of California’s historic drought, which has sharply reduced crop production as it enters its fourth year. With 95 percent of the state in “severe” to “exceptional” drought, farmers are leaving fields unplanted, cattle ranchers are reducing herds and almond growers are tearing out orchards.

California, the second-largest rice-growing state in the U.S. after Arkansas, usually produces more than five million pounds (2.3 million kg) of rice and sells about half of it abroad.

But this year rice farmers only planted 420,000 acres (about 170,000 hectares) — 25 percent less than last year — because of water restrictions, according to the California Rice Commission.

On a clear October day, farmer Mike DeWit watched as a giant combine harvester cut and threshed a field of rice plants, discharging the grain into a tractor-pulled wagon.

DeWit, who usually plants 1,000 acres (about 404 hectares) of rice on his family farm in Woodland, outside Sacramento, said he only planted 700 acres (about 280 hectares) this year because his water supply was cut by 30 percent.


So he idled one of his combine harvesters, and hired one less worker and one less tractor.

“I think it’s the worst as far as the California rice industry is concerned on record,” DeWit said. “One more dry year, and I think the impacts on California rice farmers will be devastating.”

The reduced plantings also impact migratory birds and other wildlife that depend on flooded rice fields as habitat. Every fall, millions of waterfowl fly south from Canada and Alaska to spend their winters in California’s Central Valley.

After the fall harvest, farmers usually cover their fields with water to break down the rice stalks, creating a wetland habitat for millions of ducks and geese which feed on uncollected grains and other plants.

“It is environmentally a very nice crop to have in the system. It mimics the natural system of a couple hundred years ago, when that area was wetlands,” said Bruce Lindquist, a rice researcher at the University of California, Davis.

In a typical year, rice farms flood 250,000 (about 100,000 hectares) to 300,000 acres (about 120,000 hectares) in winter, but this year as little as 50,000 acres (about 20,000 hectares) may be flooded because of water restrictions, according to the rice commission.

Conservationists are worried that waterfowl and shorebirds will be at greater risk for disease as they crowd together in fewer rice fields and wetlands.


Read more HERE.
 

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