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.