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Nature, Diligence Revive California Rice Industry : Agriculture: A negative image is shed. This week's shipment to Japan symbolizes state growers' success.

November 23, 1993|DONALD WOUTAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIGGS, Calif. — For five years, plant breeders in this rice bowl outpost have been developing a California version of koshi hikari, a variety of rice prized in Japan above all others.

Success is still a few years away, says agronomist Marlin Brandon, so there will not be any koshi hikari on board when a landmark cargo of California rice sets sail for Japan this week from the Port of Sacramento.

But the long-term targeting of the Japanese palate by scientists at the industry-funded Rice Experiment Station says much about the survival instincts of the state's century-old rice-growing community.

The 136,363 bags of California rice being loaded aboard the M/V Koala represent a change of fortune for growers of a crop threatened by shrinking water supplies, environmentalist pressure and creeping urbanization. And that it is poised to breach Japan's monumental barrier against imported rice makes it an apt symbol of the shifting Pacific Rim terrain spotlighted by the weekend Asia-Pacific summit in Seattle.

While Japan's new generation of leaders bends to an emergency shortage of domestic rice and the demands of the world trading community, California rice growers and millers have emerged from their own battles on the home front in fine shape--in from the cold of political incorrectness to be held forth as a model of responsible agribusiness behavior.

The rice industry's chief nemesis, influential water historian Marc Reisner, has retracted his indictment of California rice as a "monsoon crop in the desert" and is now aligned with growers in an ambitious scheme to reclaim several hundred thousand acres of wetlands drained by decades of dam-building.

The state's 2,700 growers, most in a rice bowl of adobe soils between Sacramento and Chico, have also won praise from state and federal officials for cutting water use, slashing pesticide residues and backing passage of a state law that phases out the efficient but much-resented practice of burning rice straw after harvests.

"The rice industry has good guys and bad guys like anyone else, but these programs are very creative and very exciting," said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), a major voice on water and environmental issues. "The rice industry has improved by leaps and bounds. They've shown a greater willingness to confront problems and seek solutions than the rest of agriculture."

Now, as if in reward for such forthright behavior, nature has dealt the rice growers and millers a strong hand. The end of California's drought has meant the second largest rice harvest ever--while bad weather wreaked havoc on crops in most other competing rice regions.

The worst crisis is in Japan, whose rice seeds were used to launch California's industry in the early 1900s but whose closed rice market has been a source of international trade tension for years.

An emergency shortage has forced the Japan Food Agency to scour world markets for rice. And only a few areas, notably California and Australia, have what the Japanese want: ready supplies of medium-grain japonica table rice that is said to be at least as good as--and far cheaper than--Japan's own.

Japan's entry into a thinly traded world market has sent prices of medium-grain rice soaring 60% since early September, and rice market analysts expect them to at least double.

"My phone started ringing off the hook in late September," said Nick Greco, an independent grower-marketer who farms 450 acres near Lincoln on the rice bowl's eastern rim.

"Every call, the price would go up. They would call me at night, and then by the time they would reach me in my truck the next morning, the price would be 25 cents higher," Greco said. "It's a big, pleasant surprise."

Reisner, author of "Cadillac Desert," a critically acclaimed 1986 attack on federal water policies in the West, notes that the steps rice growers have taken to reduce burning, cut water consumption and ease pesticide use have cost them money and yield: "I hope they make a lot of money. They deserve to make it up somewhere."

Except in emergencies, Japan has refused to import rice from here or anywhere else for at least 20 years. But California's rice industry still bears the deep cultural and agronomic imprint of the Japanese.

Japanese rice varieties were the genetic basis for most of the rice developed since 1912 at the Rice Experiment Station in Biggs, whose publicly available seeds account for more than 90% of the rice grown in the state.

And the legacy of one-time California "rice king" Keisaburo Koda, a Japanese immigrant who farmed 9,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley until his internment in World War II, lives on today at Koda Farms, in South Dos Palos. His son and grandchildren grow a proprietary premium rice--Kokuho Rose--for U.S. markets and restaurants catering to people of Japanese heritage.

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