The Unsung Story of the Chinese and Japanese Immigrants Who Brought Rice to California

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

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

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In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

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The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

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via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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