Patty Arnold

Rice and Labor–The Asian Community in the Sacramento Valley

watkinsDuring the California Gold Rush, the labor of Chinese immigrants was exploited by the mining and agricultural concerns. The Chinese exclusion law of 1884 created a labor shortage, especially for agriculture. Japanese immigrants were brought in to fill the labor gap. 1860 marks the earliest documented attempts to commercially raise rice in the Marysville area. It is theorized that the early attempts were made to create sources of food for the labor camps. The factors of timing, types of soil and types of rice were not understood and these early crops did not fair well. Rice was imported for sale to the laborers.

In 1908, Professor Mackie was studying the chemistry of crop and soil types for the US Bureau of Soils. Looking specifically into alkali soils and raising rice plants near Fresno, he theorized that rice crops might actually improve alkaline soil. At this time, the Biggs Chamber of Commerce asked him to look into the wheat crop failures in the area and test the black adobe soil. The Chamber of Commerce, The Sacramento Valley Development Association, and Southern Pacific Railroad backed his first experiments financially. Forty acres were planted using two varieties Honduras and Kiushu. The Japanese Kiushu was the most successful variety. Professor Mackie made the prophetic statement that the Sutter Basin, which was flooded with overflow water at the time would be “the best rice producing land in the world”. Biggs is still a site for agriculture research and experimentation. The site takes over 375 acres along Highway 162 and specializes in experimental strains of rice, rice breeding for disease resistance, and herbicides. It is a non-profit, private facility and is funded by an assessment of 5-cents per hundredweight sack of rice. Their goals are Biotechnology research, elimination of pesticide use and effective agronomic practices.

It was also during this same period of time that Ikuta, a Japanese immigrant contacted Dr. Jones at the US Governmental Experimental Rice Station in Biggs. Since 1908, farmers of the Sacramento River Valley had been trying to grow rice and were using some of the best tracts of land with rich soil and were met with disappointing results. In fertile soil, rice produces tall stocks and no grain. When the rain came in October, the panicles did not ripen which further delayed harvesting. Dr Jones' experiments led to the contrary discovery that it was the poorer soil in the area, which worked best with the climactic conditions. An associate of Dr. Jones, Ikuta took this information and worked with other Japanese families to buy up all the wasteland they could locate at less than $2.00 per acre. Land was purchased in Colusa, Glenn, Butte, Yolo, Yuba and Sutter counties. They sought out hard parched soil with alkali content and in a couple of years had established nurseries for seedlings and their fields were producing the high yields. Ikuta became known as the “Rice Wizard” and these same counties are producing rice to this day. Japanese investors and laborers were attracted to the area and many of the corporations formed: US Farmers Co., Star Rice Co., Chico Rice Co., Grimes Rice Co. and more were owned by the Japanese rice barons. Japanese immigrants, in the early 1900's were responsible for large percentages of California's produce and, as a result, land values before 1913 were $30.00 per acre and rose to $200.00 per acre by 1918.

Water was controlled by the Sutter Basin (Reclamation District 1500) in order to release and control flood waters into a system of weirs and bypasses. They were also purchasing land in the reclamation area and ended up with over 60,000 acres for about $25.00 per acre. Construction of levees in one area created flooding in others and in the winter of 1919 heavy rain brought heavy flooding and million dollar damages to the families of the Sutter Basin area forcing the Sutter Basin District to compromise their plans. Unfortunately many of the families of the area were forced to pay high assessments on land they owned free of mortgage. Many of the Japanese rice-farming pioneers lost their investments and life savings in this disaster. In addition to the financial ruin of the floods, anti-Japanese sentiments brought an agreement in 1907 to prohibit Japanese laborers from Hawaii and Japan and in 1913 the Anti-alien land law was passed which prohibited the Japanese from owning land and limited the lease period to less than three years. In 1924 the Oriental Exclusion Act was passed and this was followed by the depression. American life has been deeply enriched by the influences of multi-cultures, each deserving of a place of honor, and deeper awareness, yet the gift of rice in America is burdened by difficulty and loss.

Still Waters...

There has been a history of flooding and disasters in the Sacramento Valley. One of the worst was the English Dam disaster in 1883, caused by placer mining in the Malakoff Diggins located in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. Up to the time of the flood, agricultural crops and ranches were damaged by the continual silting. The farmers and ranchers in Marysville formed Anti-debris associations to take on the mining concerns and the city of Marysville became a center of activity. The Sawyer Decision ended hydraulic mining only after this disaster ruined 18,000 acres of farmland along the Yuba River and the debris traveled down the Sacramento River, through the Delta, to the Raccoon straits and into the Pacific Ocean. The possibility that the debris would form sandbars in the navigable waters of the San Francisco Bay further strengthened the position of the Anti-debris coalition in Marysville and agriculture won its legal case.

Water issues persist. Agricultural concerns are often at odds with developers over usage and access. During WW1 there was a demand for high priced crops and the Sutter Basin District was leasing land in tenant farming arrangements. Giuseppe Giusti, from Lucca, Italy was an early commercially successful rice farmer. His techniques of rice farming enabled him to get a yield of 50 sacks per acre, which was unusually high for that time. In one anecdote, Giuseppe tested the rice by tossing his straw hat into the field, if the hat fell into the water, the crop was too thin, if the hat stayed on top, the yield would be good. Today, the hat has been replaced by the hydrometer and new techniques have increased that yield to over 8000 pounds per acre and this increase in yield has allowed farmers to make up pricing shortfalls. The Sacramento Valley has many qualities, which favor rice production; good irrigation systems, level fertile ground and heavy subsoil. Rice farming has been criticized for a high use of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and a high use of water. Heated discussion over these issues is ongoing. The California Rice Council reports that gains have been made and that the pesticide use is down from gallons to ounces. Since the use of water is massive, special care must be taken, as what goes in this water, tends to stay and affect the entire food chain. It should also be noted that the rice fields are habitat and an important wetlands.

Control of this much water gives rice farmers huge responsibilities. The California Farm Bureau reported that at a 1999 meeting of 5000 water experts in the area, the discussion was of a blue revolution”. The attitude that water is free and unlimited is being challenged and agriculture is facing the reality that water is a renewable but limited resource. Efficient use of the available water is necessary and methods are changing to include drip irrigation, water storage and water management. Since no other crop uses the quantity of water that is involved with rice farming, there are increased pressures for efficiencies. It may, in fact, be the habitat-wetlands status that has given rice farming some of its special compensations regarding water usage, but talk of “water wars” between Northern and Southern California intensifies. In a September, 2004 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Central Valley Project was mentioned as the latest government contracts give agricultural districts 90% of the water supply and undo some of the existing wildlife reforms. On September 15th of this year the US Senate approved a Cal Fed plan to bring all sides of the water issues together and give a voice to conservationists and agriculture. The GOP majority in Washington has pushed water contracts through without environmental studies creating deep distrust.

The model for a more successful agreement is the Colorado River Compact which found consensus between three states, big water districts (Los Angeles), farmers, environmentalists, state leaders and yes, even Washington D.C. These are difficult discussions and the agendas are often in conflict. New Federal policies are being developed and the California Farm Bureau is focusing on wetlands enforcement, water quality and “nonpoint source pollution”. The 1999 conference reported several successes: Removal of a dam on Butte Creek, allowing Coho salmon to migrate upriver more than doubling their numbers; Conservation as measured by drip irrigation systems has reported yield increases of 40% while the water use was cut by a third. It was during this conference that the rice farmers compromised their high water use with a ban on the annual burning of post-harvest rice straw. The simultaneous burning of 2 million tons of straw created severe air quality issues with residents experiencing a high incidence of asthma and allergy related health issues. In exchange for giving up the burning process, the harvested fields are re-flooded to break the straw down by anaerobic digestion. The plan was the result of a unique collaboration between environmental groups and more conservative groups such as sports hunters, and Ducks Unlimited.