Charley Mathews, Jr., didn’t intend to be the third generation of his family to farm rice in northern California. With an early goal not to continue farming like his father, and his father before him, he took his passion for math and science to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he studied mechanical engineering.
“I didn’t get the job I wanted out of college, so I took a position in the East Bay, but quickly found out I didn’t like the traffic,” he recalls. “The Bay Area was crowded and competitive, and I had a tough time with that. So, I called my dad, and he said, ‘I’ll pick you up’.”
Young Charley immediately went to work for his father, for the next decade learning the rice farming business before branching out on his own in about 2002 to start his own rice business. Ten years later he partnered with friends to buy a rice dryer. “So, I became my dad’s competitor,” he says.
Since 1884 the Mathews family has lived on and farmed the same land in Yuba County that today sits under the flight path of U-2 spy planes on final approach to nearby Beale Air Force Base.
Charley currently farms about 1,000 acres of rice, including two varieties of medium grain and a short grain variety popular in Japan, called Calmochi. It is a sweet rice primarily used in creamy, dessert-type dishes, and is well-suited to the Sacramento Valley climate. Unlike other growers in the area, he is content with growing rice. He grows no other crops. “I tried sunflowers once,” he says, “but failed miserably at that.”
From Local to Global
Earlier this year Mathews was elected to serve a two-year term as chairman of the USA Rice Federation — commonly called USA Rice, the national advocate for the U.S. rice industry. He was elected during the organization’s annual summer meeting in Texas, and will preside over the organization’s annual outlook conference, Dec. 5-7 at San Diego, Calif.
The US Rice Federation is an umbrella organization dating back to 1994, when the rice industry’s three national associations — Rice Millers Association, USA Rice Council, and U.S. Rice Producers Group (now USA Rice Farmers) — approved the consolidation. While each group maintains its own board of directors and designees to the USA Rice board, a single staff has led the federation for nearly 25 years.
Mathews previously served as chairman of the Rice Foundation, a 501c(3) organization created to involve allied industry members in a goal of raising money to promote national research projects. Every two years the federation elects a new chairman, which alternates between a grower representative and a miller or merchant representative. The previous chairman, Brian King, is a rice merchant from Erwin-Keith, Inc., in Arkansas. California currently has 10 members and alternates on the USA Rice board, representing all three categories.
After switching gears from engineering to farming in his post-college days, in 1993 Mathews became involved in the Rice Leadership Development Program, and quickly transitioned to a spot on the California Rice Promotion Board, which later became the California Rice Commission (CRC).
Industry leaders saw the need to expand activities and offerings that a commission could provide. Of these, the largest undertaking has been assisting growers with regulatory requirements, according to CRC spokesman Jim Morris. Mathews has served ever since in some capacity on the CRC board, including two years as chairman.
No. 2 Rice State
The significance of a California rice grower chairing the national organization responsible for all things rice isn’t lost on Mathews. California ranks No. 2 in rice production behind Arkansas, and typically produces the crop on 550,000 acres of land, located predominantly between Sacramento and Chico. Other national rice production states include Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Missouri.
“When you combine everyone, then you have something that has value politically,” Mathews says.
While California predominantly grows medium-grain varieties, other states focus on long-grain. California rice farmers have become savvy at growing specialty varieties that, in some cases, are sold direct. “Even though we’re growing different kinds of rice, the group is still impacted by the same issues, whether they be environmental or trade,” he says.
The success of the federation, Mathews says, is linked to its talented staff in Arlington, Va., and can also be seen in efforts to pool industry resources. “For instance, the federation has a history of California members working to provide assistance in long-grain markets and southern members assisting in medium-grain markets. That way, everyone benefits from the unification.”
Recent issues related to trade tariffs between the U.S. and China may not be what they seem, says Mathews, who believes the Trump Administration has an end-game that will be beneficial to U.S. rice growers and other U.S. agricultural producers. “I wouldn’t believe everything you read in the press on this matter.”
Improved Market Access
Because of the Trump administration’s insistence that trading partners comply with trade agreements, rather than game the system to their benefit, he believes market access could improve.
Chinese consumers still want U.S. agricultural products for food safety reasons, he says, but it’s cost-prohibitive for many Chinese citizens. Meanwhile, even as Japan continues to be the largest export market for California rice, much of that rice is consumed in bulk for food security and industrial uses. Mathews says there’s room for improvement, that it’s still difficult to find a bag of California rice on Japanese store shelves. “But we’ll get there. Japan is a great market for us.”
If real estate is all about location, location, location, then Mathews may be in a prime region for growing the crop. His irrigation water comes from the Yuba River, the most prolific watershed in the state. Water is generally inexpensive and plentiful and the heavy soil in the region is better-suited for rice than any other crop.
Pest and disease pressure can sometimes be less of an issue in the area, though other issues can create challenges. The cold temperature of the Yuba River can make it difficult in some places to even get a crop. He has a warming basin on one of his parcels where canal water is spread out, allowing it to warm before going onto the rice fields. Even then, he may be unable to get a crop on part of one field because the water is simply too cold.
Planting by air is done in the spring. As harvest nears, he will drain fields about 25 days before rice reaches what he calls the firm, dough stage. “You still want a little soil moisture at harvest, but not enough to make ruts or get stuck,” he says.
Two seasons ago, there was an outbreak of armyworms that growers across the growing region said was quite bad. “Last year was probably the first time I sprayed for armyworms in 20 years,” he says. This season, the pest appeared to be more manageable.
Weedy red rice has made a reappearance in the north state over the past several years, with University of California researchers confirming finds first in the county to the north of Mathews, and later in other parts of the Sacramento Valley. So far he hasn’t seen it in his fields.
With the near-elimination of rice straw burning, he exclusively uses irrigation water to flood fields shortly after harvest to decompose straw after it is chopped, disked, and rolled with a smooth roller. If done quickly, flooding rice fields shortly after harvest can be an effective way to decompose stubble, while making the fields a haven for waterfowl.
California rice fields are well known for the wildlife they harbor, and Mathews and other rice farmers work tirelessly to balance their crop needs and the environment. Northern California rice country is a stop along the Pacific Flyway that, in winter months, hosts millions of migratory birds and is home to countless others on a year-round basis, including bald eagles. “I’ve sat in my living room and watched five bald eagles across the street,” Mathews said.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between rice growers and owners of nearby duck clubs.
Mathews leases land at a nearby duck club to grow rice. It’s a balancing act to manage harvest timing, since the clubs aren’t set up like typical rice fields. The size and shape of the fields make harvest slower and more of a challenge. Even so, rice grown on the duck club he rents is his highest-yielding field, though he admits weed control there is tricky.
A Beautiful Vista
The importance of the duck clubs and nearby wildlife refuges is critical to the California rice industry, since the habitat created by the clubs keeps ducks out of the rice fields as they’re dried down prior to harvest.
“People forget, but the wildlife refuge system was created by the rice industry to keep ducks out of the rice fields,” he says. “Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, rice farmers put those things together.”
While income from rice farmers is important to the duck clubs, hunting is key, Mathews says. Delaying duck hunting season because of rice harvest simply cannot happen, which is why he plants a short-season crop on the duck club land as early as possible. “I can’t plant a late variety crop here because I have to be harvested and out of here by duck season,” which started Oct. 20.
To illustrate the role the California rice industry plays in duck hunting, Mathews says the rice industry plays a part in deciding the date for opening day. His rice fields also play a part in attracting attention from wildlife photographers. The proximity of the northern Sierra foothills and the view of the nearby Sutter Buttes create a vista hard to beat from his property.