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Spreading their ideals organically

Northern California rice farmers find fertile ground for putting their Earth-friendly beliefs into practice.

July 06, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

HAMILTON CITY, CALIF. — When wildlife biologists Greg Massa and Raquel Krach returned to the United States in 1997 after five years in Costa Rica, they hoped to live a lifestyle that matched their ideals.

They moved to the Northern California rice farm that had been in the Massa family for four generations and adopted two children, planted a few acres of organic rice and tried to create an ecologically friendly farm.

"We felt like we had a chance to put it all into practice," Krach said.

Today, they have succeeded in putting their organic rice business on the map as their family has grown to seven. They live on their farm near Chico in an energy-saving straw-bale house. River otters, herons, geese and other birds thrive nearby.

In their own small way, Massa and Krach are helping to improve farming practices in an industry that is not known for embracing change.

"You are more likely to take care of your land if you live on it," Massa said. "You don't want to spray [pesticides] around the kids. Anything that goes into the ground water, we drink."

Take straw, for example.

Instead of burning their leftover rice straw, a traditional method that spews hazardous silica into the air, they plow it into the soil in keeping with organic farming practices.

The couple used some of their rice straw to build an attractive two-story, straw-bale house, framed in wood and covered in stucco. This spring they held a house-raising to build a three-bedroom addition. Dozens of neighbors and friends showed up on a Saturday to help them lift the straw bales into place and stuff straw and mud into the cracks.

"I grew up in L.A.," Krach said as the walls went up. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would build my own house."

Massa and Krach said that by keeping the windows open at night and closing them in the morning, they can keep the house cool naturally during the summer, even when the temperature hits 100. Similarly, a fire in the wood stove is enough to keep the house warm in winter.

John Swearingen, the architect who designed the house, was on hand to help put up the new walls. Although building with straw bales is no cheaper than ordinary construction, he said, there is a huge savings in reduced energy costs.

Massa and Krach found themselves in sudden need of more space because their multiethnic family has grown quickly. After adopting their first two children, they began taking in infants who needed foster care. They cared for four children and eventually adopted three of them. Their children range from 2 to 9 years old.

Krach, who at one point drove the tractor and did other farm work, now focuses mainly on the children. Foster care for infants was not part of the couple's plan, but they realized they could do more to help the community, where poverty and drug use are continuing problems.

"I thought someday maybe I would work in orphanages," she said. "That evolved into my being a stay-at-home mom. We have so much space and nature. We felt really blessed to have a space we could share."

Krach added, "It's hard to juggle multiple careers if you are farming. I could volunteer on a lot of boards or work for a nonprofit. Or I could help one kid at a time."

Though the family was booming, the organic business was slow to take off.

Massa was sharing management of the 650-acre farm with his father, Manuel, who reluctantly agreed to let his son experiment with organic farming.

It generally takes three years of organic farming before produce can be labeled organic, a lead time that can be costly. The Massas are growing 60 acres of rice and 30 acres of almonds, as well as 40 acres of wheat that will soon be organic.

Greg Massa soon realized that the business could not survive by selling to wholesalers, so he decided to try marketing directly to consumers. He began hauling bags of brown rice 165 miles to farmers markets in San Francisco and selling them himself.

"We were not making it farming," he said. "We had to do something."

He has steadily built the Massa Organics brand and now distributes rice to six farmers markets in the Bay Area, hiring people to help him. In the evenings he packs rice into shipping boxes to fill Internet orders. Saveur culinary magazine recently featured Massa Organics in a lengthy article and hailed its brown rice as "uncommonly good."

Despite the pressures of child care, home building and marketing, Massa and Krach also have started to fulfill their dream of restoring wildlife habitat.

They planted trees and built nesting boxes for wood ducks, barn owls and bats along an old railroad line that runs on the edge of the property. Now, otters come into their rice paddies and hunt for crayfish. Coyotes, raccoons and deer are common. Next they plan islands of wildlife habitat within their fields -- an idea unheard of in rice farming.

Massa and Krach hope their organic business will take off and they can continue to convert more land to it.

Even his father has warmed to the idea, Massa said.

"He has never been interested in organic farming and wasn't real supportive of it for quite some time," he said. "But he worked a few farmers markets with me and for the first time in his nearly 50 years of farming, he had people coming up and telling him they liked his rice."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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