Dragonflies swarmed above a rice field under a hazy morning sun. With an orchestral maneuver, they darted into the sky then nose dived back to the water, occasionally swooping to the left or right as if trying to throw off the police in a chase. As my gaze was transfixed upon this dance, organic rice farmer Greg Massa informed me that dragonflies have an aquatic life stage in the beginning. When they dip and dive to the water, they are actually laying eggs. I had never made the correlation between rice fields and dragonflies before, but it made sense. I guess it’s no coincidence they are often depicted together.
Greg and his wife, Raquel Krach, along with their five children, own and operate Massa Organics, a brown rice and almond farm outside of Chico, CA. Greg is a fourth-generation rice farmer, and the 225-acres he farms have been in the Massa family since 1970. But it wasn’t until 1997 when Greg and Raquel returned from five years in Costa Rica as tropical ecologists that they began to transition the land to organics. “Rice farming offered an opportunity to do real conservation work on our own land rather than the theoretical work of university-based ecology,” says Greg. “Stewardship of the air, water and land are our primary concerns.”
In 1998, Greg and Raquel planted their first rice field, gaining organic certification three years later. Since 1998, they have slowly transitioned 40-acres at a time over a total of 10 years. The soil is predominantly heavy clay, which is ideal for growing rice (it keeps the water from seeping away). Matched with Central California’s dependable hot weather and a good water source like the Sacramento River, Massa Organics offers the perfect environment for farming rice.
Rice: A domestic goddess
Massa Organics is not alone. Many parts of Northern California have the same heavy clay soil especially suited for rice production. There are over half a million acres of rice in California; the state is second only to Arkansas in U.S. rice production. Rice is, in fact, California’s largest organic crop by acreage, with ten percent of production organically grown.
When average citizens think of rice, they may envision paddy fields and the large brimmed hats of Chinese farmers, not the arid plains of the United States. But more than 80% of the rice consumed in the U.S. is produced domestically. Rice production is so strong in the U.S. that 40-60% of the rice grown here is exported. Much of the rice grown on American farms, however, is your basic long-grain, which doesn’t have nearly the texture or flavor of medium-grain. In addition to having different grain lengths, rice can be either brown or white. The difference is not in variety but in how the grain is processed. Only the hull is removed when processing brown rice, which means it is a whole grain and nutritionally superior. White rice is processed further with the nutritionally rich bran and germ removed as well.
Greg Massa showing off the farm's organic almonds.
Massa Organics grows only medium-grain brown rice specifically cultivated for California. Besides nutrition and regional-appropriateness, Greg also considered the cultural implications of variety selection. “Ethically, I don’t want to produce Basmati and Jasmine because these are varieties that have genetic heritage to Thailand and East Asia,” he says. “Rice is a cultural grain that has been created through hundreds of years of selective breeding. It would be unnecessary competition for us to grow those varieties.”
The organic nemesis: Weeds
With Northern California’s ideal growing conditions, one would think there would be even more organic rice growers in the region. “Weeds!” says Greg, are a huge challenge. The biggest enemy is Bull Rush, which is a type of Sedge. Not only is it invasive but it has little stem strength so it falls over in the field, oftentimes taking the rice stalk with it. Even with machines to separate out the larger rice seeds during harvest, it makes the process difficult and timely. If not controlled, weeds can reduce a yield by half. The integral process of crop rotation is the best defense in mitigating weed problems in organic rice production.
Greg’s process is about a 2-year rotation. In the fall, he plants a cover crop of legumes and grass, namely vetch and wheat. In the spring, Greg tills the cover crop under, spreads compost, levels the fields and then seeds the rice. The following fall, he drains the field and then, one month later when it is dry, he harvests the rice, planting wheat right behind. The wheat fields don’t typically have weeds because their direct competitors can’t survive the flooded rice field. The wheat crop is harvested for market the following summer, which doesn’t leave enough time for a rice crop. So the field, or check (8-10 acres), is prepared for another fall cover crop.
Greg would like to do 3-year rotations, but he doesn’t have enough land--an important factor to consider when you are trying to stay profitable. Greg and Raquel were awarded an NRCS grant last year to introduce alfalfa into a rice farming rotation, and they hope to try an oil crop like safflower in the coming year.
Another common tactic for controlling weeds is raising and lowering the water in the rice fields to very high and low levels. Rice fields are precisely leveled within 1” from one end to the other. The optimum depth for growing rice is 6” of water. Flooding the field to 10” will drown weed seeds but stress the rice. Drying the field mid-summer before the rice sprouts puts the field into drought stress, cutting back weed growth but possibly stunting the rice. It is a delicate balance. Organic rice farmers have to hedge their bets on which way the pendulum will swing.
Interestingly, Greg explains, “Rice is no more water intensive than many other food crops--it just looks like it because the water doesn't soak in. If you judge rice on the amount of food produced per unit of water, rice is actually more water efficient than many other crops.”
Balanced biodiversity and unusual solutions
Harmful pests and insects are, fortunately, not much of an issue when it comes to rice; the crop has few enemies. One of the few antagonists is the tadpole shrimp, which can multiple into the millions and nip off the roots of the rice plant. The tadpole shrimp, however, is an opportunivore with a non-discriminating appetite for not only rice plants but weeds, making tadpole shrimp both a curse and a blessing. They don’t have any real predators except wading wild birds like egrets and cranes. But over the past few years, Massa Organics has been working to introduce ducks as a natural pest and weed manager. In addition to controlling outbreaks of tadpole shrimp, their wading oxygenates the water and their droppings provide a natural fertilizer.
Using ducks for pest and weed control is a work in progress.
Getting the right size ducks and introducing them to the fields at the right time is an art form. Protecting the ducks from predators is also a challenge, so the system is still a work-in-progress. “Rice fields are basically pond ecosystems, so we are managing an aquaculture of sorts,” says Greg. “We encourage biodiversity in the rice fields as we do all over the farm to support a healthy agro-ecosystem.”
Biodiversity also comes in the form of harvestable crops. Greg happens to have a variety of soil profiles on his property, enabling a diversity of crops like almond trees. When the Massa’s first field proved to be too light and porous for rice production, they converted it to a 30-acre almond orchard in 2005. Almonds are now a substantial part of their business. The majority of the harvest is sold at an impressive fourteen farmers’ markets between Santa Cruz and Chico.
Greg continually aims to increase their farm’s biodiversity, mimicking the symbiotic relationships shared between plants and animals in nature. In a healthy woodland ecosystem, grazing animals would keep the understory of an orchard clean, so a few years ago they started experimenting with Dorper sheep to manage weeds and grass proliferation in the almond grove. While rotating the sheep is more labor intensive, it is dramatically less expensive than using propane torches and gas mowers. Fortunately, two adorable Akbash canines, Cody and Ginny, help manage the flock, keeping them company and safe from predators.
Un-commoditizing a commodity crop
Developing a sustainable business model has played an integral role at Massa Organics and has been key in allowing them to successfully sell what is traditionally a commodity crop more like a specialty crop. “Organic rice has a higher dollar value than conventional, but it is still a commodity crop and will fetch a lower price than other specialty crops,” says Greg. “If we were going to continue growing organically, we realized we had to take on the marketing in order to stay competitive and profitable.”
Massa Organics sells “direct to market,” meaning they don’t usually use a broker or distributor. They have found great success with their 14 farmers’ markets but also have cultivated strong relationships with restaurants as well as a few CSA farmers and natural grocers. Probably the partner they are most enthusiastic about is Revolution Foods--not because they are Massa’s biggest account but because they bring organic, medium-grain rice into schools across the country.
The latest addition to the family farm is a drove of hogs that they rotate around 12 acres. “We more or less backed into raising pigs,” says Greg. “We were helping to keep another farmer’s pigs. When he decided he wanted to get out of the pig business, we were given the hogs as payment for the wheat we had grown to feed them. Now we own 140 pigs.”
As we were wrapping up our visit, I finally asked, “Who owns the airplane that keeps flying overhead? He’s made like four fly-bys.”
“Oh, that’s our neighbor,” remarked Greg. “He has a fleet of private airplanes and has his own runway. Coincidentally, we hire him to seed the rice fields by air.”
Now that’s a good neighbor!