The continuing drought in California is really having an impact on rice production in the state. There are numerous changes in production coming, but not much new today that rice growers can implement. Changes have taken place over the years, but a fourth year of an extreme drought is something the state’s rice growers haven’t previously faced.  

There is trust in agricultural university research helping farmers. As noted by some rice growers, following University of California-Davis recommendations has allowed rice yields continue to increase year to year.

An example of previous research being helpful to rice growers was recently noted by George Tibbitts, Colusa County farmer, who served as a graduate student in agronomy working with Jim Hill, who was a Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Davis at the time. As would be expected, water management, including the impacts of water depth on a crop and reduction of herbicide runoff, was the focus of research.  

The mixed clay soil at Tibbitts’ ranch allows for ponding water for rice. Over the years, the crop rotation has included safflower and sunflowers, which Tibbitts noted can mine the clay for deeper moisture and nutrients. The land has also been used for tomato production, and all the crop rotation helps in control of weeds and diseases.

Tibbitts has harvested twice the yield his grandfather once harvested from the same ground. And even though most people not familiar with rice production think rice is a heavy water user, it really doesn’t use much more than most other crops and even less than some, as noted by UC Davis Department of Plant Science rice specialists.  

Water in California’s rice area is used over and over as it might be described as cascading through the rice-growing area. UC Davis Extension specialists point out that one farmer’s tailwater is the next person’s irrigation water. The clay soil of rice fields is key because water needs to only soak into the top few inches and not deep.

Water has been used to flood rice fields during the winter to break down the post-harvest straw because burning of straw is not permissible. Now, with water being so short in supply, water for winter flooding is a luxury that can be turned off.

UC Davis scientists have been known for developing rice varieties for growing high yield from flooded fields, but the scientists are now emphasizing rice varieties that need less water and produce yield under drought conditions.

“But in this particular area you could probably do more with water management than you can with breeding,” David Mackill, a rice geneticist and adjunct professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, was quoted as saying. “In the longer term, we should be thinking about breeding crops for better sustainability traits.”

Examples of water management is the potential of alternating wetting and drying fields different than currently used, but procedures haven’t been fully developed.

Another drought year in 2015 is highly likely to mean even less rice grown in California than 2014, according to those familiar with the state’s drought and water allocations. Some farmers might be able to grow lower-water-use crops, but in many cases it will mean more fallow fields.