Rice Farmers Expect to Harvest Record Profits

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Oil isn't the only global commodity trading at record prices. In the last three months, the price for the kind of rice used in most Asian and Mediterranean cuisines has doubled. That's exactly the kind of rice California grows and exports. KPCC's Julie Small says rice farmers near Sacramento are expecting record profits this year.

Julie Small: The fields of Don Bransford's rice farm look even greener this year.

Don Bransford: OK, I'll just pull a single plant for you... (sound of pulling rice plant out of the water).

Small: Bransford slides into wading boots to pull a stalk of rice out of the muddy water.

Bransford: OK, this is a single– this is, this is from a single rice seed.

Small: He's the third generation of his family to farm 500 acres in Colusa County. It's an hour northwest of Sacramento in the heart of California's rice-growing region. Bransford loves the life. The submerged crop is a bird watcher's paradise; snowy egrets, long-billed curlews, and killdeer nest in the grass. Bransford loves making food out of a seed submerged in water.

Bransford: From that one seed, you have here, you've got one, two, three, four, five, six, about seven, seven stools that are coming out, and each one of these will produce a panicle of rice.

Small: A "panicle" is a hollow sheath that fills with moisture, turns milky, and eventually hardens into grains of rice.

Bransford: So there is your rice plant. (laughs)
Small: That's beautiful. Let– hold that up for me and let me get a picture of this. (laughs)
Bransford: OK.

Small: If everything goes right with Mother Nature and world markets, Don Bransford will sell his rice at a record profit this year.

Bransford: We're hoping. The prices are, they've never been this high.

Small: Early this year, the price doubled. Rice now sells slightly below that at $21 per a hundred pounds. Prices rose so quickly, Tim Johnson at the California Rice Commission had to assure consumers there's still plenty of rice to eat.

Tim Johnson: The situation has developed really not by a shortage of rice in the world, but a shortage of the supply of rice that is traded in the world. And that's a significant difference.

Small: Most rice is consumed close to where it's grown. Only 7% of the world's rice is actually traded. Johnson says that makes it precious. A shrinking supply of tradable rice drives up its price. That's what happened when China, India, Vietnam, Egypt, and Brazil kept their surplus rice at home. Rising food prices had them spooked. They kept their rice to keep it cheap.

Johnson: Countries that then relied on those exports suddenly found themselves without a ready supply of rice.

Small: That sudden demand pushed rice prices higher and opened new markets for California.

[Sound of forklift backing up]

Small: It's a sweltering Monday morning. Mike Luken dons a hard hat to show me around the Port of Sacramento. On the dock next to the deep water channel, longshoremen use forklifts to line up bags of rice.

Mike Luken: It's loaded in these one-ton super bags, and then it's loaded aboard ship with a bridle, which is lifted off the ground...

Small: A crane from the ship the "Genius Star" hoists the bags onboard. It'll set sail to Japan just as soon as crews finish loading the 8,500 metric tons of rice.

Luken: Rice is one of our number one commodities. It's been the mainstay of the Port since its beginnings back in the early '60s.

Small: Rice could drive even more business to this port. Until this year, California exported most of its rice exports to Japan. But last month, Puerto Rico bought a shipment for the first time in three years. Australia bought some, too. Turkey's interested in California rice, along with some Middle Eastern countries. The Rice Commission's Tim Johnson is trying to capitalize on the moment.

Johnson: Ten cents a serving is still the best deal on your plate.

Small: Johnson says, even at nearly double the price, California rice is a bargain. And he thinks most taste-conscious consumers prefer it. But he also knows that if other countries resume exports, the profits enjoyed by California's rice farmers could vanish. The cost of harvesting that rice could also cut into farmers' profits.

Johnson: You know, just like I don't know what the price of gas is going to be when I get to the pump, they don't know what the price of their diesel fuel is going to be the next time the tanker comes and delivers.

Small: Don Bransford worries a lot about the fuel cost "X factor."

Bransford: We use a lot diesel at harvest. We've got, you know, big equipment that's out running around and we just, we don't know if it's going to, you know, $5, or where it's going, and there's real fear out there in terms of what those costs are.

Small: Bransford can't control those rising production costs any better than he can stop other countries from resuming exports. But for this year at least, he' still cautiously optimistic that he'll reap the best profit of his life from that crop he loves to grow, California rice.