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New rice success in niche market

As a third generation rice farmer, rice farming has always been a part of my life. I am currently the Managing Partner of my family's company, Montna Farms, which operates out of Yuba City. We manage 2,600 acres of land including rice and organic walnuts, growing exclusively Koshihikari rice, which is a short grain, high premium variety packaged in the Tamanishiki bag and used in many Asian dishes. I also serve as a member of the California State Farm Service Agency Board and as an alternate board member of the California Rice Commission. I am a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, as well as Class 26 of the California Agricultural Leadership Program.

From the outside looking in, rice may seem like an easy target for the latest food crazes. The American consumer has become compulsive about minimizing carbohydrate intake and the easy assumption would be that as result our industry has been hurt. But nothing is ever that simple. While many customers have in fact reduced their starch diet, a whole other segment has become vastly interested in gourmet and ethnic cooking. In fact, an additional set of food trends indicate that rice is benefiting from these new interests.

Those numbers show that the average individual is eating out far more today than say a decade ago. As a result, they are able to explore different foods with the freedom to enjoy those dishes on their own at a later date. The food service industry, from fine dining to fast food, has embraced the consumers' desire to explore unique culinary options; consequently rice has been woven into this exploration process. It is evident by the recent explosion of sushi in mainstream markets, even as an option to the hot dog in some convenience stores.

Tangentially, an additional niche market exists within Asian-American communities across the country to provide a product comparable to rice grown in Japan and elsewhere. Our commodity is a staple in this diet, providing a more stable opportunity for sales, but with stability comes a tremendous expectation by the customer for quality and care taken in growing and processing the rice. This segment of the market is one that the California Rice Commission has acknowledged can be further developed and as a result is hosting a Sushi Masters Competition Sept. 21st in Sacramento.

Top sushi chefs

The commission is inviting eight of California's top sushi chefs to compete in a live sushi competition. Its unique ties to both sushi cuisine and the rice industry make California the ideal host for this first-of-its-kind event. This event will present the early history of sushi's arrival in the United States and recognize the high profile chefs who later revolutionized American cuisine by introducing Asian flavors to their menus.

Even with these unique opportunities, the rice industry β€” as with any commodity β€” needs to be constantly reinventing itself. The California rice industry hasn't been victimized to the extent of other end products by the ever-changing consumer palate, that's not to say that we have had it easy. It has taken concerted marketing efforts to sway those curious consumers into trying rice-based foods. It involves meticulous farming and processing practices, taking the same care and attitude towards the crop as our foreign competitor. And, it will involve constantly staying ahead of the trends to beat the consumer to the punch.

We may be part of the β€œit” crowd now, but that's not to say that tomorrow the winds of change won't blow; we in rice must be ready to find our next niche.

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