February 02, 2007

The Grain Gap

The Sacramento Valley is planted with almost 500,000 acres of rice, so why have most farmers’ market shoppers never seen the face of a rice farmer? Rice is a commodity— by definition, “a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price.” Rice production mostly happens on a very large scale and farmers sell their entire crop to corporations that mill and distribute the grains. Many producers never taste their own rice or learn who (or what) consumed it. Since there are few mills that will hull in small batches, and since farmers are daunted by the prospect of bagging the rice and selling it pound by pound, rice is rarely sold directly by producer to consumer. A few years ago, one farming family was able to find a mill to process their organic rice. They tasted their product for the first time and have taken on the challenge (and embraced the joys) of selling straight to eaters. We are thrilled to announce that at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, the grain gap is closing: beginning this week, shoppers will be able to buy organic brown rice.
Greg Massa’s family has been growing rice in Hamilton City, near Chico, for four generations. His great grandfather, who emigrated from Portugal, first began farming their 700 acres in 1916. Through the generations, the Massas’ farm, and rice production in general, has seen significant changes; the way that Greg’s grandfather grew rice—with no chemical inputs and very little machinery—gave way to a highly mechanized, energy- and chemical-intensive “green revolution” model during his father’s generation. In 1997, Greg and his wife Raquel Krach left their jobs as tropical biologists and brought their love and knowledge of ecology back to the Massa family farm, commencing another shift in how the Massas grow rice. Shortly after Greg returned to the farm, he and Raquel began transitioning a portion of their acreage to organic. The rice from their 90 organic acres, marketed under the “Massa Organics” label, is what they will be selling at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
Because of increased weed competition and less availability of nitrogen, Greg’s organic acres yield about half as much rice as the acres that his father and mother farm conventionally. Lower production costs and higher prices paid for organic rice mean that in the end, growing organically is no more profitable than growing conventionally. However, direct marketing offers the opportunity to capture some of the money that generally goes to middlemen. It is also more satisfying. Says Greg, “It’s more fun to know that someone is eating your rice and liking it.”
The Massas grow just one variety of rice: a medium-grain type called Calrose, which is well suited to California conditions and dominates the rice industry in this state. While there is little crop genetic diversity on the farm, the biological diversity is astounding, with migratory birds, river otters, dragonflies, and many other species making their homes in the rice fields each year. Look forward to another feature on February 16 about the ecology of rice fields and the details of rice production.
Greg and Raquel live on the farm with their five children in a straw-bale home built with their own rice straw. They will be selling their rice beginning tomorrow, February 3, in the back plaza near the Gandhi statue.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »