STORY BY Jessica Ritz PHOTOGRAPHS BY David Engelhardt
Autumn in Richvale, California, has its own rhythm. Some deciduous trees show off their changing foliage throughout the Sacramento Valley, but it’s the subtle shifting quality of light that truly heralds the transition to autumn. And then there’s the hum of activity inextricably linked to this area of Butte County’s historical and economic lifeblood—bringing in the rice harvest.
It’s go time at Lundberg Family Farms. The organic rice farming enterprise Albert and Frances Lundberg founded in 1937 near Chico, California, is ready to engage all of its human, land and mechanical resources come fall. On this warm September afternoon, John Deere combine harvesters tear through golden fields like massive, high-tech mechanical dinosaurs with guided purpose.
Down a dusty road, the rice mill is at full throttle, bagging and transforming last year’s crop into hundreds of products destined for rice-loving consumers. Towering silos receive, handle, dry, and store nearly unfathomable quantities of organic, non-GMO rice that weigh in the millions of pounds.
“It’s our Super Bowl!” Dryer and Storage Manager Je Chandler shouts over the din of a nonstop parade of trucks that pass through to transfer loads of freshly harvested rice into the silos. But unlike a one-day event, this rush continues from September through November as part of the process of bringing 17 varieties of organic rice to market. And that’s after the growing period, where it takes anywhere from 100 to 160 days for rice to develop from seed to harvest in the Lundberg Family Farms’ fields.
The farm is owned and run with the involvement of some 39 family members. There are all the bagged raw rice, along with rice-derived products ranging from intensely flavored chips to ready-to-eat, pre-cooked jasmine rice grown at Fair Trade-certified cooperatives in Thailand. After nearly a decade of work spearheaded by Vice President of Administration Jessica Lundberg and her team, the company will soon start selling a new rice called Tiger’s Eye, and the Lundbergs have even expanded into quinoa, too.
That’s a really complicated question,” responds Vice President of Agriculture Bryce Lundberg (and Jessica’s cousin), when asked how many acres comprise his family’s farm. The quick answer is approximately 6,000 acres within his own family, and another 14,000 when you count the other farming families in the Sacramento Valley with whom they contract. Like all large-scale organic farming and this style of rice production in particular, however, it’s about managing a system of puzzle pieces and variables rooted in their most precious resource: the land. Ever since Albert and Frances left Nebraska during the Dust Bowl migration and began farming in Richvale, the family has prioritized earth stewardship. The harsh environmental lesson left its mark, guiding the couple and their sons Eldon, Wendell, Harlan and Homer to sustainable farming practices. In these eco-conscious and climate-changing times, it’s a lesson that resonates more strongly than ever among the third and fourth generations.
Bryce, one of Harlan’s sons, has the no-nonsense sensibility and formidable stock of a third-generation farmer combined with an affable, gentle demeanor. He peppers conversation with an admixture of terms he’s likely to have picked up from his grandkids (“Sweet!”) and quasi-throwback, quaint exclamations his Scandinavian-American grandparents would’ve used (“My!”). He also happens to be an expert in the notoriously complex, thorny domain of California water politics.
The Lundberg clan is distinguished both within the history of the rice industry, and the wider organic food movement in the U.S. Plus the company was in the gluten-free business long before it became part of the common food culture lexicon. In the 1960s, the Lundbergs began growing rice for Chico-San, a big-brand rice cake maker that was interested in using organic rice. It was really that connection, Bryce explains, that further catalyzed his grandparents’ and uncles’ early dedication to organics.
Then in the early 1970s, Homer Lundberg, whose son-in-law, Tim Schultz, now serves as Vice President of Research & Development, helped to pioneer the efforts to establish the California Certified Organic Farmers with the USDA in 1973, the first of its kind. It took three more decades to codify and implement national standards.
This type of creative thinking and adaptation are encoded in the brand’s DNA. Take the rice-cake room, for instance. Rows of machines custom designed for the express purpose of making the popular snack operate at peak efficiency: A tablespoon of short-grain rice is automatically dispensed onto a metal disc. A cover slides over it, and following a few seconds of intense heat, a round rice cake emerges. It’s ready to continue its journey, where it will be seasoned, sorted, and packaged.
It’s a perfect merging of homemade wholesome and high-tech mechanized—a relatively restrained and healthful rendition of a Willy Wonka-esque vision—but nonetheless one that’s equally mesmerizing.
Meanwhile, back out in the fields, maintaining high environmental standards and keeping up with the ever-changing marketplace is a delicate, evolving dance.
“We grow rice here because the soil, and the climate, and then the water,” Bryce says, while standing in a waving field of grain, in this case soon-to-be- cut basmati. “It is a heavy clay soil.”
In these rice paddies, water doesn’t percolate through the hard lower pan. Dry summers and flat terrain add to the ideal mix, which support organic practices, unlike in other rice-rich regions where humidity welcomes insects and disease. As a result, says Bryce, “rice in California is really high quality.”
And then there’s the challenge of invasive elements. The family and its a affiliated growers have honed weed management techniques that rely on using water—a prized resource which is readily available to Lundberg Family Farms thanks in part to its longstanding water rights from the Feather River—to drown grasses for approximately 30 days during the growing season, instead of turning to pesticides to wage the battle. Because there are no chemicals involved, the remaining water can be drained back to the river when its job is done. As a happy byproduct of sustainable rice-growing practices, the fields offer food and a resting place for nearly 230 wildlife species, including internationally recognized shorebird habitats for species hitching a ride on the Pacific Flyway each winter.
This is a company that’s become all too intimately familiar with the consequences of a potentially ravaged ecosystem. The devastating 2018 Carr and Camp Fires happened startlingly close to Richvale, directly impacting employees and reminding everyone why environmentally protective action is imperative. (The Lundberg Family Family Farms Employees Camp
Fire Relief Fund was created with the Golden Valley Bank Community in response to the overwhelming need.)
To that end, the facilities diverted a whopping 99.7 percent of its waste in 2018, encompassing everything from rice byproducts to uniforms, and has platinum certification status under the TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency) Zero Waste Rating System. Jessica’s cutting-edge research in the nursery and collaborations—such as a recent project with the University of California at Davis to study the measuring of greenhouse gases—help support sustainable food production in an industry more typically influenced by behemoth conventional agricultural corporations.
It’s the company’s mastery at blending age-old wisdom and innovation that fuels its success—and puts healthful, delicious food on our tables. And it’s the family’s passion for growing more rice and growing it even better that suggests future Lundberg generations will carry on the good work.
“There are thousands of rice varieties grown in the world, and two-thirds of the world eats rice every day, multiple times a day,” Bryce says. “We want to provide an opportunity to enjoy that variety and that diversity. Seventeen— that’s a lot of varieties—but in the world of rice, it’s just a small piece.”
How to Make Rice So Nice
A heavy-bottomed saucepan will ensure even heat and prevent burning the bottom.
Rice is best stored in an airtight container, in a cool, dark place with a stable temperature (ideally below 55F). Refrigeration is recommended to extend shelf life, particularly with raw brown rice.
Keep a lid on the pot during cooking so steam won’t escape.
Rice triples in volume. Use cookware appropriate for the amount of rice you are preparing.
Do not stir. Stirring releases the starch, resulting in rice that is sticky.
Powerful home blenders (such as a VitaMix) can instantly transform whole rice grains into gluten-free rice flour. Pause blending once to stir the mixture for better texture. Approximatelyone cup rice yields 3⁄4cup flour.