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California rice leader honored

What happens when you mix together an environmental activist, a dedicated rice grower, a tireless campaigner and a national leader? Many say you might come close to duplicating Al Montna.

Montna, who has been growing rice in Sutter County for decades, is being honored in August with the prestigious “Agriculturist of the Year” award by the California State Fair. Only 23 others have been given the award, which recognizes exceptional work in the area of agricultural finance, government, production, education, labor research, communications, trade and public service. Many say the award is based in part on Montna's exceptional work with environmentalists and his long-term planning to ensure that his land does not fall victim to development in the future.

“His work to win over environmental activists targeting California's rice industry is legendary,” said California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura. “He led the transformation of that industry to what many consider to be agriculture's poster child for environmental stewardship.”

Montna grew up in Yuba City, and is the grandson of a farmer who came to the area in 1884 to grow prunes, apricots, peaches and grapes. He became owner/operator of Montna Farms in 1975 and, over the years, tremendously increased the size of his operation. Along with Montna Farms, he has other businesses including Montna Rice Dryer, CEM (a walnut farming and land development company) and a partnership with the American Commodity Co. that has primary markets in Japan, the Middle East and the Pacific Rim. He is also owner of the Dingville Duck and Social Club, builds custom homes and is owner/member of Metro Air Park, located near Sacramento International Airport.

People skills

Along with being a shrewd businessman, Montna is also known for his skills with people-from top-level Washington insiders to up-and-coming leaders in local communities. He was the chairman of the Farmers' Rice Cooperative board from 1984 to 1998, working on behalf of the industry in Washington, D.C. He also served on many political campaigns and was recently instrumental in coordinating a visit by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Yuba City.

Montna has long been known for working with leaders in the environmental community, including the late activist Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert. After meeting with Montna, Reisner changed his negative ideas about the California rice industry, and actually touted the environmental efforts of rice growers in the state.

Three years ago, Montna became one of the first growers in the region to develop a conservation easement to ensure that his land will never be developed, and will always be managed to enhance wildlife benefits.

“Working with Al has been such a positive experience for us,” said Olen Zirkle, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited, a partner in the development of the easement. “His dedication to agriculture and wildlife has resulted in our first wildlife-friendly agriculture easement in California.”

Among his many honors, Montna received the national 1992 Rice Meritorious Service Grower Achievement Award for his work toward the economic progress of the rice industry. In 1996 he was also awarded the Honored Alumni of the Year for the College of Agriculture at Cal Poly. Additionally, he was awarded the California Rice Industry Award in 2001. He is a Life Sponsor of Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited and the California Waterfowl Association.

Montna and his wife, Gail, live in Yuba City.

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