Saturday, February 5, 2011

Richvale, California: Dennis Lindberg, 86. Rice farmer.

Well, I was born here in 1924.  On July 23rd, 1924.  When I was a senior in high school I grew my first rice crop as an FFA project.  I bypassed college and all and went to the School of Hard Knocks or whatever you want to call it.  

This year I planted my 69th consecutive rice crop.  Somebody asked me when I hit 50, "well aren't you gonna retire?"  And I said, "Hell no!"  I've been very fortunate in those years.
 In the spirit of welcoming the unexpected, let us leave the midwest in the sweltering last days of July and fast forward through a few states to an interview that took place in Richvale, California.

Richvale is nestled north of the fertile fruit and vegetable valleys that supply many of us non-Californians with carrots and lettuce in the winter months.  The first farmers to inhabit Richvale tried to persuade wheat to grow here, but the climate and terrain were unsuitable for that crop.  It wasn't until Dennis Lindberg's father started farming the land around 1911 that he and his peers realized this land was perfect for growing rice.
  
I have a great respect for my father and other people who settled this community in the years beginning '11, '12, and '13.  We just celebrated our 100th anniversary of the founding of Richvale.  They came here to what was primarily wheat land.  And not very good wheat land at that.  There was some farms established that'd been abandoned.  Well, then a group out of the San Joaqine Valley Realty Firm came up here and formed what the called the Richvale Land Colony and they started promoting, selling this land.


This was as early as '09 and '10, if you will.   Rice was just in its infancy in California at that time.  The first rice was grown in probably '09 or '10 on an experimental basis down and out west of Gridley from what I understand.  Then, of course, as things went on, by 1915 the land developers were gone.  They grabbed their money and left, if you will.  

So it was left to our founders to get an irrigation system.  It didn't have proper drainage; there were a few wheat farmers out here, and when they were farming rice it would leak out onto their wheat, and of course they didn't like that.  And there were no improved roads.  So our founders went through a living Hell, if you will, till they got something established and founded this [BUCRA].  This facility was founded in 1915.  My father was one of the founding members and on the original board of directors.


So, I feel a great debt of gratitude in those of us of second and third generation to our forebearers, forefathers, who founded this community and provided a place for us to do something with our lives.
 
 Dennis, or "Denny", as he is known in his community, exudes excitement, an abundance of civic pride, and a passion for growing rice.  As a hobby he also grows watermelons of generous proportions.  He and his son, Gary Lindberg, farm about 400 acres of rice in this region of around 500,000 acres.  We were connected to him, for all intents and purposes the local historian, by Jim Morris at the California Rice Commission.

The Butte County Rice Growers Association (BUCRA) building where we met Dennis also contained evidence of his artistic abilities; the front waiting area had one of his hand-fashioned metal duck sculptures featured.  He creates these metal ducks with different themes (the Fire Department Duck and the Evangelist Duck, for example) and sells them as fundraisers for the town of Richvale.

It's a city without a real city government, if you will.  They call me kind of the ipso facto mayor around here.  I don't live here anymore; my son lives on the farm.  We live over in Thermalito.

Richvale had been a boom town that could have been on its way to busting in the early 1900's, but its citizens wouldn't hear of it.  When the economy started tanking back then, and the townsfolk were abandoned by the developers, this hamlet rolled up its collective sleeves and started planting rice and helping each other get through.  There is a definite Bedford Falls feel here and Dennis could easily play the role of George Bailey, town enthusiast and champion.  The fire department, a local cafe, and schools are operated and maintained in a large part through donations and volunteer power from the community.  Dennis describes his town as a "self-help community."
 
When asked what he'd like to see change in agriculture, he spoke, among other things, of the need to remind people that this rural Californian community exists out here, producing an incredibly important food crop.  He references Lundberg Rice, a neighbor who specialized in organic growing (no relation, by the way, between the Lindbergs and the Lundbergs.  Both families were early settlers here):


Public acceptance that we're out here.  And we want to remain here!  We got to keep this commerce going.  You know, out at Lundbergs, there's 250 employees in that facility over there.  Right here at Butte County we must have 50!  We got an irrigation district with 12 employees, we got a drainage district with 4 or 5, we got a school...you gotta keep those things going.  And rice is what's doing that in this case.  I want to see that continue.

 
Like some of the other farmers we've talked to, Dennis relates how much technology and equipment has been improved over the last decades.  He is working on his 69th rice crop this year and he grows a short-statured variety.

When the Lindbergs got their first harvester it could harvest in a day what a brand new harvester could do in an hour today.  Denny used to let his fields lay fallow every other year but demand has become so great for rice that he plants every year now.  Water rights are an issue we heard many farmers express concern about, but Richvale has impenetrable water rights that keeps the ever growing population of southern California off their backs.
  
I saw this industry...I consider it a privilege...I'm 86 years old by the way...I got to see horses working in the field as a kid.  I've seen this industry come from the horses and the hundred-pound sacks to stationary harvesters.  I even pulled the bundle wagons if you know what they are.  They put the rice in shocks about so big around, and you went around with a bundle wagon, pull it with a tractor.  When I was 13 years old, pulling that bundle wagon out and over to the harvester, where you unhooked and went and got another bundle wagon.


In those days they hired transient workers, hobos if you will.  They were coming out of Oregon and Washington up there in the grain harvest.  They'd hit here about October.  Well, come Saturday night or if it rained, you paid 'em off you didn't always see 'em again!  {laughs}  So my dad had to get me out there one bad winter in 1937 when I was 13.  So I got exposed to some of that and I begged to continue.  I though, "boy, this is cool, man!"  Not that I didn't enjoy school.  I was a good student; I was a straight A student my first two years, but then I got more interested in farming than I did school.

Lundberg Rice, also based in Richvale, is the leading grower of organic rice in the country; Dennis mentions that they "put this town on the world map".

Dennis estimated that 60% of the rice grown here is sold domestically, and 40% is exported.
 
Like most farming communities, time is made and set aside for recreation, especially if it involves agriculture.  Before we hit the road, Dennis drove us out to his rice paddies and just beyond, where he has his watermelon patch.  Every year he grows 4 or 5 gargantuan melons to be used in a weight-guessing competition; whoever is closest to the actual weight takes the melon home.  Travis and I were sworn to secrecy (melons have been stolen in the past) about the location of the patch, and Dennis took us to a seemingly overgrown portion of his field.  After furtively glancing around to make sure no one was watching, he surreptitiously bent down and pulled back a layer of grass to expose the promising green-striped shell of a watermelon already the size of a mini-refrigerator.  As quickly as it had been uncovered it was inconspicuously tucked back into its hay bedding and Dennis straightened up and had us renew our vows to keep mum about the location of the watermelon.
 
As a parting gift he gave us two lesser melons and the sparkling wisdom of a man who has seen his fair share of harvests- "when you cut 'em open they should go 'snick!'- that's how you know you've got a good one!"  

A few weeks ago, Dennis wrote to us again to update us on the aforementioned watermelon.  Below is the 90 pound monster.  Dennis' son, Gary (right) and Donald Rystrom (left) each guessed within a pound of that.
 
Read the full interview after the jump, including stories of growing up in rice country and facts and opinions about the industry...


 Well, I was born here in 1924.  On July 23rd, 1924.  When I was a senior in high school I grew my first rice crop as an FFA project...Future Farmers of America...and I bypassed college and all and went to the School of Hard Knocks or whatever you want to call it.  This year I planted my 69th consecutive rice crop.

Somebody asked me when I hit 50, "well aren't you gonna retire?"  And I said, "Hell no!"  I've been very fortunate in those years.

You know, it's not like...well, if I sound braggadocio, I want to tell you why.  I have a great respect for my father and other people who settled this community in the years beginning '11, '12, and '13.  We just celebrated our 100th anniversary of the founding of Richvale.  They came here to what was primarily wheat land.  And not very good wheat land at that.  There was some farms established that'd been abandoned.  Well, then a group out of the San Joaqine Valley Realty Firm came up here and formed what the called the Richvale Land Colony and they started promoting, selling this land.

This was as early as '09 and '10, if you will.   Rice was just in its infancy in California at that time.  The first rice was grown in probably '09 or '10 on an experimental basis down and out west from what I understand.  Then, of course, as things went on, by 1915 the land developers were gone.  They grabbed their money and left, if you will.  So it was left to our founders to get an irrigation system.  It didn't have proper drainage; there were a few wheat farmers out here and when they were farming rice it would leak out onto their wheat, and of course they didn't like that.  And there were no improved roads.  So our founders went through a living Hell, if you will, till they got something established and founded this.  This facility was founded in 1915.  My father was one of the founding members and on the original board of directors.

So, I feel a great debt of gratitude in those of us of second and third generation to our forebearers, forefathers, who founded this community and provided a place for us to do something with our lives.

Well, and I might say that I saw this industry...I consider it a privilege...I'm 86 years old by the way...I got to see horses working in the field as a kid.  I've seen this industry come from the horses and the hundred-pound sacks to stationary harvesters.  I even pulled the bundle wagons if you know what they are.  They put the rice in shocks about so big around, and you went around with a bundle wagon, pull it with a tractor.  When I was 13 years old, pulling that bundle wagon out and over to the harvester, where you unhooked and went and got another bundle wagon.

In those days they hired transient workers, hobos if you will.  They were coming out of Oregon and Washington up there in the grain harvest.  They'd hit here about October.  Well, come Saturday night or if it rained, you paid 'em off you didn't always see 'em again!  {laughs}  So my dad had to get me out there one bad winter in 1937 when I was 13.  So I got exposed to some of that and I begged to continue.  I though, "boy, this is cool, man!"  Not that I didn't enjoy school.  I was a good student; I was a straight A student my first two years, but then I got more interested in farming than I did school.

Has there ever been a point when you wanted to go do something else?

I had visions and dreams as a kid growing up, yeah.  I was a pretty darn good trumpet player, by the way.  And in between I played the Saturday night dance jobs in a little four-piece.  I played first chair trumpet all the way through high school.  That was one of the real reasons I stayed in high school, because I loved that music.  And  I played a little football and those kind of things and baseball.

I got married in 1945.  So last April 8 my wife and I celebrated our 65th wedding anniversary.  I have a son and a daughter, couldn't ask for a better family.  My son now farms with me, my daughter lives in San Francisco with her husband and they're successful in their own right.  As a matter of fact, her husband is the president of the National Ferrari Club.

So how many ares are you farming now?

Well, my son and I this year, we planted 400 acres total.  We leased out part of it to another party, so in our land holding we have right at 600 acres.  I started with 50 acres that I inherited from my father.  I rented land till he gave that to me, and then I built on top of that, where we now own in the family and farm around 500 acres and lease another 100.

How many hands does it take to manage that much?

Well, we have an arrangement with another farmer.  A rice farmer, plus he's a row crop farmer.  He has enough employees that he has to have for the row crops that he provides...we have our own harvester and two tractors.  We have one year round employee, but during harvest we're able to borrow a couple of his employees.  Plus we rent him one piece of our land which helps, you know?  He has a tractor that hauls our rice for us, so we don't have to worry about that side of it.  We have a pretty close-knit, smooth operation thanks to my son who is really...I'm kind of backing out of it now; I don't drive tractor much anymore, or the harvester but I used to do it all of course.

Our headquarters is just east of town here, just a quarter of a mile.  And all of our land is pretty well local, we don't have to run all over the country to farm it.

Obviously rice has very large differences from other crops, with the flooding and everything.  Can you give me an overview of how a year on the rice patty works?

In the spring, after the rains stop we like to get started, preferably in the middle of April or late, late March.  We start the ground preparation.  We prefer to plant in the last week of April, first week of May.  Then you escape all the late rains that come later in October.  The varieties that we have now are so much better than the ones I started with that were 165-day maturity.  Those crops ran clear into October, November.  Now by the middle of October we're pretty well done.

We voted on ourselves in 1969 what was called an accelerated rice research program, where we asked plant breeders to bring us a crop, a short-stature variety...you know, you get 'em tall, and a lot of ripe kernels on 'em and they fall over and then you kind of defeated your purpose...so they developed some short-stature varieties beginning in '69.  That program...the rice industry, by the way, owns the rice research station just 2 miles down the road, so we call the shots on the rice breeding program.  Since 1969 we've moved the state average from about 50 hundredweight to last year it was around 85, or something to that amount.  BUCRA, this facility right here, hit 94 hundredweight per acre.  I think some of the best rice in the world is right here.  And it's substantiated by the yields that we get.  There's a few areas, in Arkansas...by the way, 2 million acres of rice is grown there as compared to 500-600,000 here in California.

 I've got a couple of charts I could show you, rice yield as it progressed over the years.  It might be interesting.

Is water a problem at all?

Only in severe drought years.  Then we do have deep wells that we can turn on.  We don't like to do that 'cause then you start foolin' around with the underground supply of water and that can cause subsidence and you can defeat your purpose.  We fortunately have a riparian water right, established in 1913, that is impenetrable, or else Southern California would have had that water a long time ago.  To our good fortune, except in a drought year have ample water for our crops.  We'll supplement with ground water if we have to, but I've only had to do that two times in the years that I've been growing rice so we hope that...who knows!  Whether there's global warming...


What about soil preparation?  You want more compacted soil for rice, correct?

Ah, well, we like to get it worked up and mellow in the spring for what we call a seed bed.  Then we inject the fertilizer down about so deep; we call that the finish fertilizer, we got some on top for it to start.  We do sometimes detect that there's going to be a need for more fertilizer, then we do what we call a top dress with an airplane and that'll be absorbed by the plant.  I didn't do any of that this year because we planted a little bit late.  You can also cause it to grow itself out so that you don't get a crop.  You can over-fertilize it, it'll fall down.  been through some of those too.


Do you rotate rice ground with other row crops?

We used to, we used to.   When I first started here you never thought of rice after rice after rice.  You'd plant it one year and then leave it idle and then rotate back and forth.  But the demand for rice and the industry now, we just about farm it every year now.


So what are the biggest challenges in ag that you've had to deal with over the years?

Well...weather, for one.  And getting on the ground early in the spring and getting planted.  Some of the early-maturing varieties have been planted and grown successfully up into even the first part of June, but you're kind of asking for it if you plant it that late.  It could suddenly turn cold, which it did this year, and some of that rice planted late may be in trouble, I don't want to be a doomsday person here but mine was planted ahead of that, I'll put it that way.  Then come harvest, we usually start about the middle of September, but this year's gonna be the end of September and it'll take us about 30 days, we just have one harvester.

Another comparison is that, the first harvester I ever had, a push harvester, self-propelled...this is after we went from the bundle wagons and hundred-pound bags to bulk, if you will.  I feel privileged to have witnessed all that, worked with that.  So, the first harvester, self-propelled, that I had, I was lucky if I could get 600 hundredweight, that's 6000 pounds, in a day.  Our current harvester does that in about 45 minutes.  So quite a difference.


Is there anything that you miss or reminisce about from that old style of rice farming?

Childhood memories, you want to know here?   Okay...well, there was what they called a hobo camp.  Hobo workers would camp right out here behind where those flats are.  A hobo jungle, if you will.  And they had little temporary shelters put up.  Across the street over there, believe it or not, was a grape vineyard.  I remember going over there with my father and they'd be sitting around a fire, maybe have a pole sticking up, a wire, and a tin can, cooking something.  He'd hire crew out of there.  He had some that came every year...but like I said, if it rains you had to go and hire some new ones.  So I remember going with him down to do that.  My dad arranged a bunkhouse where they could sleep and a cookhouse where they fed them.  I would get to go out there and eat supper with those guys.  I was just a kid. But then I became a part of the crew finally when I was 13, you see?

Anyway, it would have been right at the beginning of World War II, '42, '43, along in there, when they started making a transition over to the combine.  They'd phase out of the stationary harvester into the combines.  'Course I ran several of those over the years.  I would stay out of school my junior and senior year around harvest time.  But I learned out there, see?  I don't regret it a bit.  I never dreamed I'd see a facility like that across the street in this little town of Richvale.  But you know, they're smart...get it out where the farm is!  Not in the big city!  There were three of those at one time.  One in Gridley, one in Chico, and one in Yuba City.

So, I don't know, I'm just ranting on and on here.   I don't know how much good you're getting out of this except...I do want to say this about this community.  I'm proud I was born here, right over there in Broadway.  The house still stands there.  I had a brother and two sisters.  My sisters inherited that house and they later sold it.  I call this a "self-help community,"  in that they came here and they were abandoned by their developers, so they had to do it themselves, improve the roads, get the irrigation system and drainage system...get a school goin', get the church, there were two grocery stores at one time but we don't have any now.  We have a little cafe down around the corner, which is owned by the community by the way.  They made their own sewer, got our own volunteer fire department over there, there's a good strong Evangelical Church here, there's the Richvale Parents Association, we formed our own recreation district...so it's a city without a real city government, if you will.  They call me kind of the ipso facto mayor around here.  I don't live here anymore; my son lives on the farm.  We live over in Thermolito.

Well, we need to stay on the rice.  I told you how proud I am of the accelerated rice research program and how lucky we are to have this facility here.  We don't market rice out of here, it goes out to several different marketers.  Plus there's the Lundberg facility here, they have, with their organics, they have put this own on the world map.  You know, you go into a supermarket and you see their products eye level.  That stuff's moving if you see it on eye level.  They've done a marvelous job, they have, with their organic production.

Is that on the rise?

Well, I've heard rumors that there might be a surplus, I don't know, you hear.  I encourage them and I tell you why.  If they can find a market for that rice, that's that many acres out of production competing with me over in the medium grain.

So, obviously they have their own brand name that they market under...where does the rest of this rice go?  Is it domestic?

Yeah, the last figure I heard was we're about 60% domestic and 40% export.  That could be different now, but I think that's where it is.  And there's various mills.  I market with Associated Rice Marketing Co Op, which does not sell, but it deals with these millers out here.  We have our own pool of rice and it has produced a pretty good return every year that is commissioned.

I'm sure that you've see change over the years in the varieties that are grown.  Are there a number of different varieties here or everyone growing the same thing?

Yeah, they're all kind of numbered now.  They used to be like "CalLady" and those kind of names, but now they're more numbers...M202, M204, M206, M208, right down the line.  M401...M401 is a carryover.  It's a 165-day return and you've got to plant that early.  It has a very wonderful milling quality and it commands a little premium price, but it doesn't yield up with the other varieties that we have.

And do most of those get processed into white rice or are they sold as brown rice?

Some of it is sold brown rice, but they just knock the hull off .  The real good is in than bran, you know, but people prefer the white.  Most of the rice we grow is polished into white rice.

In a larger picture, what wold be some ideal changes you'd like to see in the ag system in this country?

Well.  We're headed there, I think...you know, the greatest criticism we have is the subsidy program.  My first crop I got $3.50 a hundredweight.  A postage stamp was 3 cents.  Now where do you think it is now?  After the depression era of '29, '30, '31, congress put into play the so-called farm program.  The largest part of that is the school lunch program.  But corn, wheat, grains, cotton, peanuts, and rice...here's the way it works in rice:  At harvest time you can go over to the local Farm Service Agency and get a loan for $6 a hundredweight.  They will forward you that money.  Then you have until August the following year to find a market for that.  Six dollars, that isn't even break-even anymore.  Used to be, way back when.  So, you got almost a year now to find a market...that's when we put our marketing agencies in.  In my case, ARMCo, Associated Rice Marketing.  They find a better market, and we go and redeem that, we go and buy that back, and get a sale, and go "hip, hip, hooray!  Made a little money!"  So we're criticized for that, but you know, that is put into place to keep an adequate food supply going through the infrastructure that our people enjoy the greatest food bargain.  When you talk about expendable income they have the best bargain on earth.

Public acceptance that we're out here.  And we want to remain here!  We got to keep this commerce going.  You know, out at Lundbergs, there's 130 employees in that facility over there.  Right here at Butte County we must have 50!  We got an irrigation district with 12 employees, we got a drainage district with 4 or 5, we got a school...you gotta keep those things going.  And rice is what's doing that in this case.  I want to see that continue.

Before you leave I'm gonna show you my watermelon patch.  You can pick your own if you like.  I got a monster out there.  I'm afraid to show it to you.  A friend of mine gave me a packet of seeds, they're called "Carolina Cross".  They claim it will go to 200 pounds.  Biggest one I ever raised was 50 pounds.  He gave me this packet of seeds; he got it at Wal-Mart of all places and there were 7 seeds in it.  I put 3 in one hill and just 1 in another hill.  I kept the rest of the 3 for next year maybe.

Do you know, before they got about half-grown they were already pretty big.  Somebody went out there and stole three of them.  So I immediately picked one and put in the cool box at the cafe.  I run what's called a Booster Club; we meet once a month and have breakfast.  About 12, 15 people pay $100 a year to make sure the cafe keeps going.  We pay the county taxes, the insurance, and electricity out of that fund.  Well, I do this every year...whoever gets closest to the weight of it gets to take it home!  And I don't know if they're gonna want to take this one home, 'cause...well, I'll show it to ya if you promise me you won't tell anybody to go get it. 

You know, you cut 'em open and they go "snick!!"  That's a good watermelon.



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