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FIELDS OF DREAMS

Rice is California’s real food story.

WRITTEN BY AMBER K. STOTT
PHOTOS BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM AND RAOUL ORTEGA

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Michael Bosworth stands amid his rice crop at Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst. Photo by Raoul Ortega

On a drive through the countryside, perfectly patterned green squares lay out like a carpet ahead, blue sky sharply surrounding them. The patches on this agricultural quilt are fields of California rice, a crop that covers 500,000 acres in the state. Ninety-seven percent of these farms are located in the Sacramento Valley.

Rice plays an important part in the Sacramento region’s agricultural story. Americans will eat a forecasted 8.4 billion pounds of rice in 2017-2018, according to the consumer data company Statista. California produces 20 percent of America’s rice. About half of the state’s crop is exported. Rice is a $5 billion industry in the fifth wealthiest economy in the world.

Rice is serious business. The farmers in charge of this commodity crop aren’t working with hoes or shovels. They aren’t growing food for the farmers’ market down the block. They are multitasking CEOs tracking the GPS on harvesters while juggling calls to Washington, D.C., and booking appointments for local duck enthusiasts. Farmer isn’t quite the right word to describe California’s rice growers. These are business leaders — and their kingdom of grain spans the horizon.

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Photo by Debbie Cunningham

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Silos at Montna Farms. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Becoming CEO

According to the 2012 USDA Agriculture Census, 93 percent of California farms are family owned. Montna Farms stands as one example.

Nicole Van Vleck grew up on the walnut ranch near Yuba City that her parents, Al and Gail Montna, owned. At an early age, she learned the value of hard work and the financial rewards of running a business. She and her little sister didn’t earn any allowance; at the age of 10, Van Vleck was working as a small farmer for her own spending money. The sisters were responsible for gleaning walnuts that fell through the harvesting machine. They sold the nuts to a local drying station, where they received a check for their crop.

Once Van Vleck was old enough to drive, the sisters were responsible for cleaning the office at their main farm — which they call a rice ranch — Montna Farms. Van Vleck also weighed trucks there that were hauling rice to local rice mills.

Yet Van Vleck didn’t feel a calling to farm as a teenager.

“I thought there had to be something else,” Van Vleck says with a chuckle.

Van Vleck traveled to the University of California, Los Angeles, for college, aspiring to become an attorney. She took a job with a Sacramento law firm, working on agricultural policy issues as a legislative analyst. Yet, despite the distance, her family farm was calling her back.

In 1994, Van Vleck returned to Montna Farms to help her dad run the business, and she’s been a farmer ever since. Today, she runs the family operation as its president and CEO and is a partner with her parents and sister, Michelle Vogt.

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A field of short grain rice, Koshihikari, at Montna Farms. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Once a farmer, always a farmer

Unlike Van Vleck, Michael Bosworth never questioned what he wanted to be when he grew up, and that was a farmer. He comes from a family of farmers dating back to the 1870s. As a little boy, Bosworth loved spending time outdoors on the family farm property and wanted to learn everything he could about the business. He took odd jobs around the farm, such as mowing. He spent every summer working there and even did a stint as a peach farm field representative for a fruit cannery.

“I got to eat a lot of peaches,” Bosworth says, smiling.

When Bosworth went to college, he stayed close to the Olivehurst, Calif.-based family farm, Rue & Forsman Ranch Inc., attending the University of California, Davis, to study crop science. He also obtained a graduate degree in agriculture — a farmer to the core.

Grad school sparked an idea for Bosworth. He wanted to reduce volatility in the market by creating branded products, partnering with local farmers to aggregate crops to sell under that brand. In 2006, he started Next Generation Foods, a seller of various Northern California products. They include a wide range of specialty rices, such as jasmine and basmati (varieties unique to California), as well as walnuts, cornmeal, and vinegar.

In 2008, continuing his long-sought career path, Bosworth went to work full time as a rice farmer, joining his stepdad on Rue & Forsman Ranch as manager. Even as his own company continues to expand, Bosworth remains closest to the fields. He loves working alongside his family, raising a crop.

“It’s a massive effort every year,” Bosworth says about growing rice. “To get harvest going and get harvest finished and see how we did … I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.”

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From left, Michelle Vogt, Gail Montna, Al Montna, and Nicole Van Vleck stand
on a weir located in the middle of the main rice water canal
at Montna Farms in Yuba City. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Protecting the environment

Van Vleck and Bosworth may have found their way into farming by two different paths, but the road they travel as rice growers is paved with shared experiences. Environmental stewardship is one of them.

According to a mapping project by California State University, Chico, 90 percent of California’s wetlands have disappeared in the last century. Many species of birds and land animals rely on this habitat for survival. Because rice requires standing field water for growth, these wetland species have made rice farms one of their migratory homes, and rice growers work intentionally to help protect them.

At Montna Farms, wildlife protection has been proactively built into the company’s ethos, a purpose-driven practice started by Al Montna, an avid duck hunter. In 2002, the Montna family worked with the nonprofit Ducks Unlimited to create the first-ever agricultural easement with a winter water component designed to provide a duck habitat in California. The agreement, in which Montna Farms agrees to leave standing water in its fields for a designated time to support protected birds’ migratory patterns, stands in perpetuity.

“This land will never have a house on it or a strip mall,” Van Vleck says with pride.

Vogt serves as president of the Montna Farms Family Council, an entity created by the company to preserve the values of land stewardship and help carry it into the next generation of the business.

“Our parents involved us in the decision to protect the ranch with the easement,” Vogt says. “It is our role to be stewards of this land for our children and grandchildren.”

Montna Farms set a trend that today benefits not only waterfowl, but also farmers such as Bosworth. Rue & Forsman Ranch also holds environmental easements. Bosworth’s farm receives payments from The Nature Conservancy for its easement, making it a win-win solution.

“We’ve got the land out here 365 days a year, and I need about 170 to grow my crop,” Bosworth says. “What else can we be doing out here that’s going to add value to the economy, our individual picture, and habitat for wildlife? It’s been an amazing collaboration and creativity between scientists and growers to come up with these programs.”

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A tractor at Montna Farms. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Partnering for changing times

Wildlife protection wasn’t the only intention of that first environmental easement that Montna Farms obtained. Al Montna also was responding to political change. Up until the 1990s, rice farmers regularly burned their fields after harvest to remove rice straw stubble left behind. At the time, air quality and public health were growing social concerns. Smoking no longer was allowed in restaurants, and rice farmers saw the writing on the wall for the future of their burning practice.

“Farmers ultimately are very practical and results-oriented people,” says Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission, which advocates for rice farmers (and, disclaimer, is a donor of the nonprofit where this author works). “If you go to a farmer, if you say, ‘Hey, what could we do in our fields to help with salmon?’ that’s the big red button in the middle of the room. Instead of reacting negatively, our famers talk about how we can be part of that solution.”

Working creatively with scientists, technology experts, and legislators has kept the rice industry evolving. Those early environmental easements provided a multipronged solution to burning fields and air quality. Today, in times of water shortages, these same partnerships have expanded as engendered salmon rely on water that rice farmers also need. Together, groups such as California Trout Inc. and rice farmers are exploring how rice farming might provide needed food for fish and animals from flooded rice fields.

Both Montna Farms and Rue & Forsman Ranch remain at the cutting edge of changes that benefit their return on investment as well as environmental improvements. Both farms employ sophisticated GPS technology to level their fields, and thereby use less water. They also use tools that measure precisely where fertilizers are needed on a field, rather than spreading them over the entire crop, which reduces the amount needed.

Neither Van Vleck nor Bosworth views their work as complete, and they are adopting new systems and practices all the time. Van Vleck describes ongoing work with California Polytechnic State University to improve water recirculation. Bosworth describes a new harvester that was so good it created a bottleneck on the trucking side of his business, which his team is currently working to improve.

Due to forward-thinking business decisions, rice is grown today using the same amount of water as broccoli or oranges.

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The Montna Farms dryer and storage bins sit beside a field of short grain rice. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Farm to fork and the future

Montna Farms and Rue & Forsman Ranch are examples of growers in the Sacramento Valley that are feeding America’s appetite for rice. A hunger that big requires industrial solutions and partners that reach across party lines to collaborate.

Van Vleck, Bosworth, and Johnson credit efforts of the America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign with helping build collaboration in unlikely places.

“I think everybody’s working toward the same goals,” Bosworth says.

“People are thinking a lot about agriculture, educating themselves, and learning,” Johnson says. “They want to be supportive. The place they touch isn’t always production agriculture. They touch it at the urban level, at the farmers’ market, at a farm-to-fork activity.”

Ultimately, Johnson hopes that consumers won’t drive by a farm field and just think it’s pretty. He believes people will be more open to learning about farming in all its manifestations.

“Farm to fork has advanced the conversation about how to be close to your food, including veggies and whole grains,” Johnson says.

Consumers are more concerned with understanding where their food comes from and interested in eating unprocessed foods, such as rice. Van Vleck and Bosworth are proud to be part of that California real food story.

Amber K. Stott is CEO and chief food genius of the nonprofit Food Literacy Center, inspiring kids to eat their veggies. She’s a food writer and has been named a Food Revolution Hero by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, a Food Hero by Food Tank, and a TEDx Sacramento Changemaker Fellow.

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