Rice has been grown in California for more than 100 years. It’s one of the state’s largest crops – and for many of those who raise it, it’s part of a deeply rooted family tradition.
Most of these rice farming heritages stem from the Sacramento Valley. According to the California Rice Commission the region supplies 97 percent of the state’s rice crop.
One of the places where California rice was first grown is Richvale, a tiny town in Butte County located about 25 miles south of Chico. Although Richvale can’t claim to be home to the region’s first commercial rice crop – that designation has been given to Biggs, its southern neighbor – Richvale has been a part of California rice farming since its earliest days.
Nearly a decade ago – in 2006 – Richvale residents published a book about the town’s history: Richvale: A Legacy of Courage, Dedication and Perseverance, which has many sections dedicated to the town’s cultivation of the crop. Longtime Richvale resident, rice farmer and local historian, Dennis Lindberg, 91, was a large contributor to the book. He said its purpose was to honor the town’s first settlers who – after being duped into moving to the area – decided not to leave, but to stay and make something out of their new home.
Richvale’s first residents came to the town as early as 1911. They were mostly of Swedish heritage and came from the Midwest. There they had been hoaxed into buying the land from a group of developers who had changed the town’s name – Selby Switch – to Richvale in order to promote it as rich, fertile land that was capable of producing a bounty of grain, fruit and nut crops.
Lindberg said after their arrival it didn’t take long for them to realize the land they’d purchased had been falsely advertised.
“It was not even good wheat land, if you will, because of the heavy winter,” Lindberg said. “But those Stockton clay adobes turned out in the end to be perfect for rice.”
So that’s what the early settlers grew – rice.
According to the preface of Richvale: A Legacy of Courage, Dedication and Perseverance, which was written by Lindberg, rice production was successful in Richvale at first, but later issues ensued. Larger crops were destroyed by early fall rains and the advent of the Great Depression forced many to leave. The book says town residents still joke and say that the people who stayed in Richvale were tough, stubborn or “were so broke they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.” Lindberg’s family was amidst those ranks.
Lindberg said the first time he farmed rice was with his father was 1937. He was thirteen years old.
“I got hooked on rice farming then and there,” Lindberg said. “And I just loved to be out there and pull that bundle wagon around and up to the harvester.”
In Lindberg’s first days of rice farming, many machines were used during harvest. A machine called a binder cut and bound the rice, the bundle wagon carried the bound parcels to a stationary harvester that separated the grain from the stalks, which were shot out of something that looked like a canon. The grain poured out of the harvester and was put into sacks.
“I got to see that whole procession come from the bundle wagon days and the 100 pound sacks to what you see now,” Lindberg said.
Today it’s a very different process. Lindburg said now rice is harvested in bulk and carried to storage in semi-trucks that probably have the equivalent of 600 100 pound sacks on them. Current harvesters are not stationary. They move across the land, each one single-handedly doing the job of most of the early machines.
Another longtime Richvale resident and rice farmer, Don Rystrom, 90, said he remembers not only that more machines were needed in the early days, but also that more people were needed to run the harvest.
About 20 people worked with their family each season, Rystrom said. Job titles included “shockers” who would place the bundles of rice out to dry, “spike pitchers” who threw the bundles into the stationary harvester to be thrashed, and there was a person who caught the fast flowing grain.
“The rice came out pretty fast,” Rystrom said. “So there was somebody, what they call a jigger. He filled the sacks. When the first sack got full he gave it to one sewer. When the next sack got full he gave it to the other sewer.”
After the sacks were sewed shut, Rystrom remembers a stencil was used to quickly put the farmer’s name on the encased product.
These days Rystrom’s crew is made up of himself and five family members, including his grandson Peter Rystrom, 28. Sitting next to Peter, Rystrom said he’d never really thought about whether or not his descendants would continue his family’s rice farming tradition. He joked it was because he never had the chance.
“I was too busy farming to think about it,” Rystrom said.
Peter, a fifth-generation farmer, said working next to his grandfather, father, uncle and cousins has been a wonderful experience. He said growing up he never thought he wanted to be a rice farmer, but after some soul searching he realized that rice farming was what he wanted to do.
“It just kind of snuck up on me,” Peter said. “And I realized a couple of years into it how special it is and how thankful I am for the legacy work, and for the work that great-grandpa, and grandpa, and my dad have put in to create a healthy family farm.”
A farm that allows him and his cousins to take part, he said.
Last week, the family wrapped up their harvest for the season. It was Rystrom’s 70th year driving a harvester. In regards to whether or not he’ll be behind the wheel of the machine next year, Rystrom said he’s not planning on it.
“If someone gets sick I’ll drive it,” Rystrom said he’s already told his son. But Peter, quickly chimed in saying that’s what his grandfather said this season.
“Day one of harvest grandpa grabbed his lunch pale and his water bottle and hopped in his truck and drove straight out there,” Peter said.
No one was sick, he said.