The tumultous tale of a multibillion-dollar industry
I’m on a narrow road punched with potholes and uneven gravel. To both sides of me are fields of water stretched to the far edge of the horizon. If I were on an airplane looking down, I’d see a gorgeous mosaic of mirrors, silvery and still, divided into perfect rectangles.
Rice farmer Charley Mathews Jr.’s family has been working the land in California’s Sacramento Valley since the late 1800s. We’re standing near the water-swollen paddies that populate his 700-acre farm in Yuba County, an hour north of Sacramento proper. The soil is compacted, and the hardpan, a few feet beneath the surface, restricts fluid percolation. This is a good thing. The land, once regarded as wasteland, is perfect for rice farming, turning fields into giant bathtubs. Mathews’ great-grandfather, who came to California from Ireland, started his business growing produce to feed the miners in the gold fields. “Miners, all they had was gold dust. They were starving,“ Mathews says.
Photo by Clarissa Wei
Mathews is part of a network of 2,500 rice farmers in California, the second-largest producer of rice in the United States after Arkansas. In the Sacramento Valley, aka Rice Country, 97 percent of the state's crop is grown on more than 500,000 acres of semi-arid land. It is among the top 20 agricultural exports for the state, and the medium-grain Japonica (a Japanese variety), also known as Calrose, represents nearly 90 percent of the state’s rice production. Calrose rice is predominately used in sushi, and according to the California Rice Commission, the state supplies virtually all of the United States’ sushi rice. On a good year (the state’s ongoing drought has reduced this year’s crop by 25 percent), the California rice industry is a $5 billion business.
The grain came to California, Mathews explains, with the state’s 19th century Chinese population. In the 1850s, roughly 40,000 immigrants, weary from the violence and economic turmoil of the Taiping Rebellion, arrived on the shores of California in search of gold. By 1855, the Gold Rush was over, but another one had quietly begun: the rush for rice.
Charley Mathews Jr. Photo by Rebecca Zeidman
According to University of California, Berkeley Professor Emeritus Sucheng Chan, by 1856 the rice industry in California was worth well over a million dollars a year. Most of the grain was imported from China; the Chinese ate at least 1 pound of rice per person each day. That meant 15 million to 18 million pounds of the grain was consumed per year. By 1875, that number grew to 54 million pounds. It became a highly valued item: At $6 a sack, it was listed in a California store’s inventory in 1865 as one of the most expensive items, along with tea, gin, and oil.
While Chinese farmers had attempted to cultivate rice in the 1850s in the swampy lands of the Sacramento Valley, they were unsuccessful in growing it on a large scale.
“When the settlers first got here, the story is that they looked at the land and cried,” says Carl Hoff, president of the Butte County Rice Growers Association.
Hoff tells me this in the Sacramento Valley town of Richvale in Butte County, population 244. There isn’t much around, except a lone café frequented by locals.
In the early 1900s, Richvale was highly advertised by the Richvale Land Company in the Midwest. Fliers went up in Nebraska touting the city as rich farmland. Money was exchanged, arrangements were made, but when folks in covered wagons reached the town, they saw nothing but mud.
“It was a land scam,” Hoff says.
But it wouldn’t be long until Butte County became ground zero for the rice industry. In 1906, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent professor William Wylie Mackie to Northern California to study the soil. Mackie prophesied that the basin, flooded with overflow water at the time, would be the best rice-producing land in the world.
He was nearly right. In 1912, rice was finally grown on a commercial scale in Butte County. Today, it is the epicenter for rice production in California.
Credit, in fact, goes to Kenju Ikuta, a Japanese immigrant and an associate of Mackie’s who discovered that the desolate muddy land in Butte County, while not ideal for Chinese strains of rice, was extremely suitable for Japanese varieties. In conjunction with the government rice station at Biggs, just a couple of miles south of Richvale, Ikuta banded with local farmers to grow the first 55 acres.
Though the Japanese were not the first to grow rice in California, they were the first to make it incredibly profitable. Land prices increased four-fold. Property values soared, and soon bankers and land companies rushed in. Rice became one of the most profitable agricultural industries of the state, the new gold. But a backlash also arose as these more established Americans began to vilify the Asian settlers who had created this industry and, in their opinions, could steal jobs that were rightfully theirs.
By 1913, this ongoing discrimination caused California’s Alien Land Law to be passed, barring most Asian immigrants from starting their own farms by prohibiting noncitizens from owning property.
Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian tenant farmers were forced to lease land from white landowners. They nevertheless produced most of the rice at that time.
Others found loopholes in the new legislation.
“I was always expected to be a part of the rice business,” Ross Koda says.
Koda is one of the few remaining farmers of Asian descent in California. He is the grandson of Keisaburo Koda, a Japanese rice farmer who was known throughout the industry as the “Rice King.”
Ross Koda. Photo by Rebecca Zeidman
A descendent of a samurai turned rice miller, Keisaburo Koda arrived in California in 1908. He originally looked to the Sacramento Valley for farmland, but high prices and discrimination made the area prohibitive.
Keisaburo ended up making his two sons, Edward and William, who were American citizens, shareholders in the family company. Eventually they settled for the city of Dos Palos, 200 miles south of where Keisaburo had originally intended and far removed from the Sacramento Valley farming community.
The troubles didn’t end there. World War II came, and in 1942, the Kodas were forced to spend years in an internment camp in Colorado. When they returned to their farm, they found that their facilities had been stripped down and that everything had been sold off.
Photo by Rebecca Zeidman
Despite this injustice, the Kodas made the decision to rebuild their farm in the same area. Today, Koda Farms is the oldest continuously run rice mill and farm in California. In the 1950s, the farm created a unique strain of medium-grain rice called Kokuho Rose, which can be found in most California supermarkets today. The Kodas were also the original growers of glutinous rice in California, a product that accounts for most of the farm’s current business and is typically used to make sticky rice or desserts like mochi. “You have to adapt.” Ross Koda says, mirroring the determination of his ancestors.
In Richvale, Hoff takes me on a tour of the rice storage facilities for members of Butte County Rice Growers Association. Together, the giant, gray industrial buildings can hold 400 million pounds in storage. In each unit the temperature is carefully monitored so that the grain can be kept unspoiled for years.
We walk into one of the massive cylinders. Inside—a towering mountain of rice. We can barely see the top of the pile. Workers are getting ready to finish filling up the building. When they are done, there will be 30 million pounds of rice in that unit alone, boarded up and stored until it is ready to be milled.
Hoff stoops down, scoops up a handful of rice, and holds it in the light. I look closer: The grains are gold in color. The outer hull hasn’t been removed yet.
I’m reminded of the Chinese and their old word for California: Gold Mountain.
Photo by Clarissa Wei