Placer County Ag Tour to showcase rice industry

By: Gloria Young, Reporter
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Placer County is known for its Satsuma mandarins and boutique wineries. But its biggest crop is rice. This year’s Ag Tour on June 18 will showcase rice growers and methods they use to support wildlife and the environment.

Placer Resource Conservation District Executive Director Elisa Noble spearheads the late spring excursion, which each year brings county and local officials together with agricultural entities. Last year’s theme was wineries and breweries.

“We try to make it relevant to what the demand is,” said Maddison Easley, program coordinator for Placer RCD. “One of the budding programs is farmers and ranchers getting incentives for environmental quality improvement.”

Rice farmers in the county are embracing the trend toward modifying growing and production practices to ease air pollution and improve habitat for wildlife.

“Rice is grown in standing water. The way that farmers manage the stubble and manage the water in the fall and winter can have a large influence on the attractiveness and amount of food provided to waterfowl,” Placer County Agricultural Commissioner Joshua Huntsinger said.

“Holistically, rice farming in the Sacramento Valley has become a lot cleaner from an environmental standpoint. (In the past), most of the rice stubble was burned and would have a tremendous impact on air quality. There has been a significant shift in the past 20-plus years.”

The modern technique is not to burn it, but to use flooding, which helps air quality and makes the land more wildlife friendly.”

The rice industry encompasses about 15,000 acres in the western corner of Placer County, in the Sacramento Valley. The land is in the Pacific flyway, making it a stopover for thousands and thousands of waterfowl and other migratory birds.

“The Sacramento Valley produces some of highest quality rice grown in the world,” Huntsinger said “It is primarily the short and medium grain. It is the high value — like sushi rice rather than cereal rice. A lot of is it exported. Our California rice, including Sacramento Valley rice, is exported around the world. We export rice to Japan, which speaks hugely to the quality of California rice. A lot of it is exported to China and many other countries. And you can buy it locally as well.”

As part of the eco-ag effort, one of the rice farms in Placer County has received funding in a partnership with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service to pay for additional water to flood the fields.

“Water costs money to farmers. It is a financial impact if they have to buy water to flood their rice fields,” Huntsinger said. “In this situation, the farmer got USDA funding to do some winter flooding in order to enhance the waterfowl habitat and straw decomposition. (The tour) offers the opportunity to see how this benefits the farmers and environment at the local level. … It will build awareness that funding is available to expand the program and show that these programs are practical to implement.”

Attendees will visit three rice farms, getting an up-close look at organic and conventional methods of growing. The day begins at 7:30 a.m. with registration, opening comments and refreshments at the Board of Supervisors chambers in Auburn. Placer County is arranging and funding bus transportation to the sites. There will be lunch along the route and the buses will return at about 3 p.m. The tour is by invitation and is free to invitees.

“We’re trying to show local leaders and our decision makers some of the great work being done in agriculture not only to raise a crop that helps the local economy, but to enhance the environment and wildlife as well,” Huntsinger said.

“I think these ag tours are a wonderful opportunity to connect decision makers with farmers to see what farming practices look like on the ground. There’s a different theme or topic each year. One year the focus was on water supply and really looked at water and irrigation. Another year, the tour looked at small farms that market to farmers markets and farm stands. Another year it looked at timber and this year at rice. It gives people a good idea of what is going on all over,” he added.

It is also part of RCD’s education and outreach.

“At times there can be a disconnect between elected officials and boots on the ground in the working farms. It’s practical to get that (interaction) and exposure,” Easley said. “We’re also trying to take a balanced perspective between agriculture and natural resources. That is Placer County RCD’s role — agriculture in a sustainable environment.”