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Rice industry grows success on relationships

California Rice Commission President and CEO Tim Johnson left and CRC legal counsel George Soares actively pursue issues of common importance to urban legislators interests and those of the California rice industry
<p>California Rice Commission President and CEO Tim Johnson, left, and CRC legal counsel George Soares, actively pursue issues of common importance to urban legislators, interests and those of the California rice industry.</p>
A referrendum will be held to determine continuation of the California Rice Commission Ballots should be out shortly California accounts for about one-fifth of the nation&#39;s total rice production &nbsp; &nbsp;

Rice is more than pilaf or something thrown at weddings.

It is also more than the 25,000 jobs and the $1.8 billion it pumps through California’s economy each year.

While rice is all of that and more, it is probably best known as “the environmental crop.” Rice fields in California provide year-round habitat for more than 200 different species of wildlife, including about 10 million migratory birds that traverse the Pacific Flyway twice a year.

A drive through rice country proves this. Shorebirds, waterfowl and raptors line the fields or fly overhead as humans with cameras seek photos opportunities to capture avocets, great blue herons, bald eagles, various hawks, geese, ducks and other critters. There are private preserves and public wildlife refuges throughout rice country, where one-fifth of America’s rice crop is grown.

Environmental issues play a vital role in what the California Rice Commission (CRC) does.

So important is the environment to the CRC, the slogan “the environmental crop” is written on the organization’s letterhead.

“We’re not an ‘eat more’ organization,” said Jim Morris, communications manager for the California Rice Commission. “We’re helping maintain the viability of this industry.”

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The CRC works on a host of issues throughout the year. Critical to the rice industry is the practical nature of helping growers apply the various regulations they face. Whether related to pesticide issues or water, they all have a decisive environmental flavor to them.

George Soares, an attorney who represents various agricultural organizations in Sacramento, including the California Rice Commission, calls the CRC a true leader in agriculture for its efforts to find and foster connections between urban legislators, urban interests and the rural-based rice growers represented by the CRC.

“We made a tactical decision many years ago to connect the rice industry with people in a way that matters to them,” said CRC President and CEO Tim Johnson. “It may not be the message agriculture wants to hear, but you really need to be focused on the messages that matter to the people who ultimately make the decisions that impact your industry.”

To do that the CRC employs its own regulatory staff, along with representatives who handle issues within the State Capitol and Washington, D.C.

Good growing conditions

Because the Sacramento Valley, where much of California’s rice is grown, is largely a surface water system of canals and ditches fed by the Sacramento River, Johnson said water quality and the environment have been a big focus of his organization for decades. He cites the example of CRC efforts three decades ago to address downstream water issues in a proactive way.

“Thirty years ago we had the first surface water quality programs in all of agriculture,” Johnson said.

The program was borne out of a real issue affecting urban residents in Sacramento. A particular herbicide used by rice growers decades ago was discovered to be tainting the taste of drinking water in Sacramento. Working together with regulators, urban interests and the University of California, Johnson said the CRC developed practices to eliminate the problem.

“We as an industry were required to make sure that we could use that material, not impact the taste of the water in the city of Sacramento, and monitor to prove that this was not the case.”

Johnson said the CRC led the crusade to find workable solutions to protect drinking water, preserve the environment, and still allow rice growers to produce rice.

With today’s push for agriculture to do more to protect water resources, the CRC has developed its own coalition to address water quality issues. Through the past several decades of helping to fund research on rice, Johnson said the CRC is in the position to form its own coalition to address California’s new waste discharge requirements (WDR). This coalition approach is becoming commonplace throughout California as growers in various regions of the state are pooling their funds and efforts to comply with the WDRs.

“There is no other commission or commodity group out there doing this,” Johnson said of the coalition approach. “That’s one of the things that makes the rice commission so different and sets us apart.”

But that’s not all. Soares’ work on behalf of the CRC to develop relationships within the State Capitol and the various regulatory agencies has led to key relationships that help growers and urban residents alike. In turn, the CRC is learning about issues within the various legislative districts in California and how they can be more responsive to the concerns of urban residents.


“The word ‘creativity’ comes to mind when I think of this commission,” Soares said.

Part of this creativity is seen in the organization’s public education efforts and the use of social media to reach out to urban voters. Of the various forms of social media used by the CRC is a Flickr page that has hundreds of beautiful images of wildlife taken by a handful of gifted photographers, including Morris and his wife, Leslie.

“We know what we want to tell people, but where do they relate; where do they connect with agriculture?” Johnson asks.

Finding and fostering those connections is part of what Soares does for the CRC.

To help achieve this, the CRC has hosted rice tours for various state legislators, and in turn, have agreed to tour the various legislative districts to learn about their districts. This cooperative approach led the CRC to Gilbert Cedillo’s legislative district in Los Angeles and its Little Tokyo neighborhood to witness first-hand the Japanese culture there and see how the Sushi rice some of Johnson’s growers raise is used.

One fun way Soares and the CRC helps bridge this relationship is through a contest within the State Capitol called the “Capitol Roller Competition,” which seeks to make the best “California Roll.” The contest is judged through audience participation.

According to Soares, the CRC dreamed up this competition about a dozen years ago and the winner receives a perpetual award which includes a framed Samurai sword. The most recent winner of the award was Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

“This has become quite the competition,” Soares said.

Rice as art

The CRC also commissions artwork, which either hangs in various offices in the State Capitol or becomes the art on boxes of rice and rice products that are donated throughout the capitol building and regulatory agencies.

In September the CRC was also a big part of Sacramento’s first-ever Farm to Fork event. Held near the State Capitol in downtown Sacramento, the event came about after Sacramento declared itself America’s farm to fork capital. The event garnered much media attention as is slated to be an annual event. Events are already being planned for next September.

The California Rice Commission was organized under provisions of the California Food and Agriculture Code. It represents 2,500 rice growers and handlers who farm and process rice on about 580,000 acres, mostly in northern California’s Sacramento Valley. California accounts for about 19 percent of the total US rice production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Every five years growers are asked to approve the continuation of the CRC. A referendum will take place in January. If not already in the mail, growers will receive their referendum ballots shortly. Growers are encouraged to vote and return the referendum ballots in a timely manner.

Overseeing the CRC is a board of directors. Among those members are an executive committee currently made up of Chairman Rob Paschoal, Sacramento; Vice Chairman Sandy Willard Denn, Willows; Treasurer Mark Kimmelshue, Durham, and Secretary Charley Mathews, Jr., Marysville.


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