In the days preceding my trip north to Sacramento Valley with California Farm Water Coalition and the visit to Lundberg Family Farms, I invoked my inner romanticist and historian and conjured up the images of people in wide-brimmed straw hats hip-deep in rice fields, with water buffalo lounging in the muddy shallows of the Mekong River Delta. I was going all Pearl Buck and Louis Bromfield, until we pulled over in front of the company’s main office building.
Third generation rice farmer Bryce Lundberg welcomed us to the property and led us inside, just past a tractor with shiny, red wheels, a relic from the 30s. His mother, Caroline, joined us in a spacious, modern, well-lit room that showcased many products manufactured at the farm. While we munched on a variety of incredibly delicious and crunchy rice chips and rice cakes, Caroline and Bryce told us a story that dispersed my images of the past.
Albert and his wife Frances left Nebraska for Central California in 1937, lured to the land of eternal sunshine by the promises of fertile soil. They were tired of the unpredictable life of the Dustbowl where there was no irrigation and the lingering consequences of the Great Depression. Once they arrived with their four small sons, they discovered, along with many other new transplants, that the familiar cultures did not thrive in the hard, heavy-clay dirt of the Central Valley. But hope quickly replaced the disappointment when they found out that the land was perfect to grow rice. The layer of extremely hard, compacted soil a few feet under the surface kept the precious water from seeping too deep, allowing rice to germinate and grow surrounded by moisture.
All the farmers collected their crop in the co-operative in the beginning. Most of the rice grown in the area was exported due to the lack of interest on the domestic market. But a few companies were leaning towards the organic rice and the Lundbergs followed their own vision: they wanted to control the quality of their rice, as they decided to take the treacherous, but rewarding route of sustainable and environmentally-friendly agriculture.
From the early days, farming was a family business, with each of the four sons getting a share of the land when they reached high school. In order to maximize the returns, they brought their separate properties together and continued to farm as one entity. In 1967 they built a mill to have more control of their crops, taking the production one step further along the vertical development concept.
Lundberg Family Farms grows seventeen varieties of rice, with seventy percent organic and the rest conventional, or eco-farm. They do not use carcinogenic herbicides nor GMO products. They have forty different farms in the area that grow crops for them, with 12,000 acres under the organic rice, and a little over 3000 acres planted with the conventionally grown rice.
In the past, once the rice was harvested, the remaining stalks were burned to clean the fields off the debris and prepare them for planting. But modern farms, including the Lundberg Family Farms, use the flooding method, which pumps the water from the irrigation systems built around the Sacramento River all over the harvested fields, where it sits, allowing the stalks to rot and add the necessary nutrients to the impoverished soil. In turn, many of the temporary shallow lakes become natural refuges for the wild birds, with over 400 species using them to survive the winter. In spring, the flooded fields are planted with seeds thrown out of the airplanes, and even though the birds will feast on some of them, many survive to make a plentiful crop.
It takes only about 16 gallons of water to grow one serving (1 ounce) of rice, which is comparable to most of the vegetables grown in the US. The compacted layer of dirt preserves the moisture and allows the rice to thrive. As the rice stalks mature, the water is drained, and when harvest approaches in October, the fields are ideally dry. After the harvest, the rice is dried, put into a mill to separate the grain from the hull and packaged or processed into rice flour or rice cakes.
Lundberg Family Farms is still a family business, with third and fourth generation involved in day-to-day operations from many angles. Some of them have vowed never to become a part of the agricultural concept, studying law, business, or history. But inevitably they are drawn back to the family enterprise, proud of the accomplishments and eager to continue the legacy their ancestors started almost a century ago, proving that it is possible to grow food that’s as good for us as it is good for the environment.
(Lundberg Family Farms products are sold in natural and health food stores around the country, as well as at co-ops and major grocery stores. For the store locator in your area check the News&Info category on their official site.)