Patty Arnold

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Preparing the Ground
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april 10

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All Images © Patty Arnold 2004. All rights Reserved.

Learning the Process

The cycle of rice is 190 days and the harvest season lasts for about 30 days in mid-September to October. The process itself begins with leveling, rolling and preparing the field, flooding, airdropping the seed and fertilizing. Water is brought in from the local rivers by a series of pumps, valves, and drains. Water levels control the growth and later will be used to break down the straw. The fields are allowed to dry out in preparation for the extremely demanding work of harvesting. The harvest is a 24-hour operation, as the window of opportunity is small. The moment for harvest, like the moment of a photograph, is critical. Modern techniques include leveling the fields with lasers and dropping the seed from airplanes. Sutter County is the source of some of the advances made in the use of airplanes in agriculture. Pilot, Herb Weggers, was one of the first to develop crop dusting as a business and is credited as being one of the first to seed rice from an airplane in 1929. Today this is the common practice and the airplanes can be spotted in April and May, running between the red flag markers in the fields. I had the very special opportunity to view the landscape from the vantage point of the air in a Cessna 172. I flew 300 feet above ground level much like the crop dusters and seeders and was stunned by the sculpturing of these fields, a gigantic earthwork.

Many of the fields are on natural flood plains, which, if managed properly can yield a good crop, and help to control the winter flooding in the valley. The landscape of the rice fields is dotted with canals, valves, pumps and drains. In the process of contour farming, the system of checks which create the beautiful lines and patterns in the rice field, are designed to; contour the land, regulate, control and level the water flow, reduce erosion and increase infiltration. Through these sinuous lines, small dams are created, sediment and runoff is reduced and this improved infiltration promotes better water quality. Planting grasses on the waterways helps to prevent further erosion, although sometimes farmers battle the grasses encroaching into the rice plantings. Rather than relying on providence, or rainfall, the fields are also irrigated with water from Butte Creek and the Yuba River. The pumps run 24 hours per day, 7 days a week during the growing season and the pumping costs along with drying costs are important economic factors. Early on, rice cultivation was a capital-intensive process due to the pumping and harvesting equipment. I have observed the current process to be so highly mechanized that an entire field can be harvested by two people. This mechanization in rice growing began early on in the United States and this is one of the qualities that separated rice from the other strong southern crops of tobacco and cotton. Farming finesse is in the decision making and starts with ground choice, preparation, seed choice, water level, fertilizer types and quantity, up through the final moment and the decision to begin the harvest. What is very difficult for contemporary farming is that while the costs of materials and equipment have risen steadily, farmers currently sell their crop for the same market price their grandfathers did. The families that can survive economically typically own their land. While the United States grows less than 2 percent of the world’s rice, it is the largest exporter of rice on earth and 60% of the crop I am looking at is destined for export. The California Farm Bureau cites in their March 5, 2004 report that “Japan is the top foreign market for California rice, accounting for nearly 60% of export sales made by the state’s rice marketers.” California’s rice crop has a reported annual worth of nearly $500 million dollars.

The global picture of rice is a key commodity in world hunger. It is vastly important to the survival of the human race. In her book Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser states: This grain is the main sustenance for half the population of the earth. If at this minute some catastrophe were to kill off all the rice crops of the world, at least a billion and a half human beings would suffer acute hunger, and millions would die of starvation before anything could be done to save them. Growing rice occupies the entire lives of over a billion people; it constitutes the only source of buying power for as many millions. She concludes that rice is not only significant in the biological welfare of the human race but it is also a creator and controller of human society. Rice touches power structures, technology, population figures, personal relationships and religious custom. Visser further points out that rice is a major cause of population density and damage to the crop means human catastrophe. China’s rice growers developed a symbiotic relationship with the city dwellers in that the city sewage provided fertilizer and they were also the buyers. In Bali the rice growers use a common canal system and the temples coordinate and keep the calendar for planting and harvest, as well as, providing rice rituals for the community. Time and space are defined by the cultivation of rice and the society is very closely knit. In Madagascar, if you want to express a half hour of time, you say the time it takes to cook rice, distance may be given as twice the time it takes to cook rice. Seasons are described by the height or stage of development of the rice. Rice is a grass and was originally grown on dry land. It was discovered that flooding produced many more grains of rice than its dry land counterpart. Rice is the only cereal plant capable of growing in water. The word paddy means rice growing in deep water. The plant will stretch its roots to the muddy bottom and reach upward above the waterline for air and the height of the plant can be regulated by the depth of the water. Rice can grow as much as 10 inches in a day in order to keep up with rising water. Rice will even sprout emergency roots at the top leaves in case rising floodwaters tear it loose. It can float and survive until floodwaters recede and reestablish itself in a new location.

The adaptability and survival mechanisms of this grass are remarkable: Rice has evolved a breathing mechanism taking in air through the above surface leaves and this cushion of air covers the stalks and leaves under water as a second source of air for the root system. Carbon dioxide releases quickly into the water, lowering pressure, which drags in more air for the plant in a circular system. While much of the world is dependent on monsoon rains and seasonal flooding of rivers for rice cultivation, the California farmers have a good canal system and pumping stations for regulating the water flow. In many Asian countries, the rice paddies not only supply the grain but also fish and frogs which thrive in the water creating a dual source of food. Sometimes the same fields are used to grow vegetables when rice is not in production. The vegetables leave nutrients, which profit the rice crop creating a rather nice loop. Locally, the rice farmers rotate beans or safflower which supply nitrogen to the soil with their rice crops, or leave fallow fields for a resting season. Crop rotation is a science in itself. Rice is ever under the discipline of water. The leveling of the fields, creation of dikes, collecting, guiding and channeling water are critical in the process.