In a region with scarce water resources, wildlife-friendly agriculture is turning California rice growers into conservation champions. Cultivators like Greg Van Dyke are leading the way, proving rice farming and wetlands can flourish together.
“California has some of the best growing conditions in the world,” says sixth generation rice grower Greg Van Dyke. “There’s more agriculture output from California than the next five agricultural states combined.”
Approximately thirty miles north of Sacramento, the Van Dyke family farm sits nestled in the south shadows of the Sutter Buttes mountains. Enjoying a Mediterranean climate and the sweeping landscapes of Pleasant Grove, they farm up to 3,200 acres a year of japonica rice varietals.
120 years since its establishment, the Van Dyke family’s farm has blossomed into a much larger operation working toward controlling multiple stages of production – including transportation (VA Trucking), brokerage (Rice Growers Association, CA) and their own brand (Kanpeki Rice). Nevertheless, Van Dyke’s commitment to all these endeavors starts on the farm.
Greg Van Dyke: “California has some of the best growing conditions in the world”
The ‘perfect’ California sushi rice
California has roughly 2,500 rice farmers growing 99 percent of the japonica rice for the US market. If you’ve eaten sushi in the States, it was probably grown in California. And as sushi’s popularity grows globally, so does the demand for Japanese rice.
The Sacramento valley and its clay soil are ideal for growing japonica varieties. In these prime conditions, Van Dyke has also founded a direct-to-consumer brand: Kanpeki (the Japanese word for ‘perfect’). Balancing California’s environmental concerns and water issues with rice cultivation, the farmer wants to truly build the brand of ‘perfect’ rice.
“During times of drought and restricted water usage, flooding fields hasn’t always been an option,” explains Van Dyke. Out of necessity, the family looked for new methods to grow rice in dry conditions. “For a few decades, our family has been on the edge of implementing new production practices such as dry seeding while committing to using science and data to support new approaches,” he says.
“Our farm has reduced water use by nearly 200,000 gallons an acre”- Greg Van Dyke, Kanpeki
Dry seeding explained
Dry seeding is a technique that helps conserve water and reduce herbicide use. “Most rice is air-seeded into a rice field with standing water,” explains Van Dyke. “But we can reduce our water use by flying the seed into a dry rice field. Through dry seeding, alternate wet/drying and mid-season draining, our operation reduces water use by nearly 200,000 gallons an acre.”
It works like this: once dry ground and micro furrows are prepared, crop duster planes release dry rice seed onto the fields from the air. Using a flat roller, the farmer gently compresses the furrows before releasing a flush of water to germinate the seeds.
Greg Van Dyke (right) with cousin Jim Van Dyke at the family rice dryer. The dryer was built by the Van Dyke Family and is owned and operated by Jim Van Dyke and his daughters.
Ecology meets technology
There are other benefits to this technique: “Less standing water also means a reduction in anaerobic conditions, reducing our methane intensity and other greenhouse gases tremendously.” Van Dyke continues, “Soil health is also an arm of our sustainability model; we use less nitrogen and implement thousands of tons of natural biomass back into the ground each year.”
In addition to reducing water use through dry seeding, Van Dyke recently became the first rice farmer to partner with AT&T and WaterBit, a smart irrigation tool, to use water-sensing technology for continued data collection. The goal is to use precision technologies to further the farm’s efforts in efficiency and sustainability.
“We are a key stop for 234 species of migrating wildlife”- Greg Van Dyke, Kanpeki
Though rice farming has been criticized for its considerable water use, California growers are sharing techniques like Van Dyke’s to conserve water. Another practice farmers in the region are increasingly adopting is selectively flooding their rice fields during the winter offseason. Their fields provide nearly sixty percent of all food resources for migrating birds.
For years, the Van Dykes have participated in the California rice industry’s efforts to increase wetland habitats for migratory birds. “Each winter we flood our fields with six inches of water, making us a key stop and resting place for 234 different species of wildlife making the trip south,” says Van Dyke.
The California Rice Commission confirms the benefits of pairing rice farming with wildlife preservation: “The value of recreating such habitats without rice farming is estimated at nearly $2.8 billion in land costs. Rice fields provide a substantial wildlife resource benefit that comes essentially free to the public as long as California rice remains viable.”
The Van Dyke operation plans on not only remaining viable, but being a leading and global business in the future. Despite these ambitions, Van Dyke always turns back to the farm: “We often say our family is not wealthy – everything we have ever had and ever will have, goes to our rice.”