New Waves of Grain
How the Lundberg family farm went organic and helped change the rice America eats.
Harvest was in full swing when I arrived last fall at the Lundbergs’ rice fields north of Sacramento. Everyone was preoccupied: quotas, yields, organic checks. They wanted to keep me busy, and out of the way.
The 17,000-acre Lundberg Family Farms is one of the largest producers of organic rice in the country and an innovator in developing many of the new whole-grain varieties available across the U.S. today. It started back in 1937 with a 40-acre plot Albert and Frances Lundberg bought as they fled the Dust Bowl in Nebraska. In the late ’50s, the farm was passed to their sons—Eldon, Wendell, Homer and Harlan—who bought up more land in the valley.
Today, this successful operation has passed to the third generation, overseen by Jessica Lundberg, the soft-spoken, pragmatic board chair and nursery manager, and her more untamed, Aristotle-spouting cousin, Grant, the CEO.
“Would you like to see the fields from the air?” Jessica asked me. “We have an experienced pilot.”
I should have asked, “How experienced?” as she was referring to her father, affable but laconic Wendell Lundberg, age 77, one of those four brothers.
Wendell taxied the plane onto a potholed runway with threshing machines going full-tilt alongside us. As we banked into the throb of afternoon light, I saw what modern rice production does to the land. It wasn’t the traditional paddies, wetlands or idyllic bit of fairy-tale Asia that I had expected.
Instead, the valley all around the Lundbergs’ fields was on fire. At harvest, the threshers strip the rice stalks of their seeds, leaving the stalks (the chaff) behind in the field. After harvest, most farmers burn a portion of the chaff. On this clear October day, it looked like the Tuesday after Armageddon, heavy clouds of gray smoke rising off the valley floor.
But down the center of the valley in the midst of the burning landscape were clear green patches, amazingly free of smoke: the Lundbergs’ fields. I pointed to them. “No burning?” I asked into the roar of my headset.
Wendell eyed me a moment. “Why waste mulch?” he asked back.
Most farmers see the chaff as a source of disease. The easiest and cheapest way to get rid of it and help protect next year’s crop from disease: burning. In response to air-quality concerns, California passed a law in 1991 limiting the amount of chaff rice farmers can burn to no more than about 25 percent of their crop. That legislation has decreased air pollution from burning rice fields, but in a valley with as much rice production as the Sacramento, it’s still enough to create the heavy clouds I saw all around us.
The Lundbergs take a different route, and see chaff as fertilizer for next year, an organic source of nutrients that also helps, by its decomposition, keep the top layer of soil from turning into cement in the California sun. So rather than burning, after harvest they turn that chaff right back into the soil and then plant cover crops for the winter.
Wendell banked the Cessna again. “Had enough?” he asked.
After landing—no, I didn’t keep my eyes open—we pushed the plane into its hangar and I had a chance to ask Wendell about what had changed in the 50 years he and his brothers have farmed this land.
“Organic,” he said, dusting off his hands.
Back in the ’30s Dust Bowl, his parents, Albert and Frances Lundberg had been lured to California by unscrupulous salesmen who offered free tickets out west and promised Eden in a valley of poor clay. The soil was poor and, for the roots of trees and most vegetables, virtually impenetrable. After several false starts, they did as so many others were doing around them: they planted the only thing that would work—rice. Today, the valley weighs in at over 2 million tons of rice production a year. The Lundbergs account for roughly 2 percent of that, with 40,000 tons of rice a year.
Originally the Lundbergs didn’t grow organically. That had to wait for the ’60s, until some progressive, hippie types from Chico came down and asked Wendell and his brothers if they’d be willing to grow something called “pesticide-free” rice. The brothers obliged and soon realized that these hippies were tie-dyed entrepreneurs: they were selling that stuff for a profit back in town.
“My Dad thought, maybe these guys from up in Chico were onto something,” Jessica later told me, the business always first and foremost in her mind.
But it wasn’t easy figuring out how to grow rice on a large scale without herbicides to control weeds. Weeds are a particular problem in rice farming not only because they can choke a crop but also because when left in the field, weed seeds can end up in the harvest along with rice seeds. And no one wants bitter weed seeds in their pot of rice.
So eventually the Lundbergs developed a risky game of letting water control the weeds. Yes, rice flourishes in a wet environment. But it must also dry out to create healthy grains. That’s where the Lundbergs’ game lies. After planting, they flood the fields for about three weeks so the grass weeds die off. Problem is, the rice plants will die if submerged over 25 days. In other words, it’s a matter of timing—release the water too soon and the weeds won’t die; release it too late and the rice will die. And to complicate matters, they only get one harvest a year in the northern Sacramento Valley.
Once they mastered the complicated rhythm of letting the water take care of the weeds there still was the issue of distribution networks: the Lundbergs, like all rice farmers, sold their crop to big cooperatives, which mixed it with all the other rice from the region. There was no point in growing organic if the rice was to be mixed with conventional rice. And so the brothers took the unthinkable step of cutting themselves off from the distribution networks and stepping out on their own.
It worked beautifully. Years later, the Lundbergs have gone whole hog into organic farming. There are about 11,000 acres in organic production and another 6,000 that are “eco-farmed”: treated to a combination of organic and conventional methods. There are now solar panels in the fields near the storage facilities to produce energy. And the family has invested in wind energy, enough to offset their own electrical use on the farm.
In addition, the Lundbergs started a program called Egg Aid to get elementary school children involved in helping rescue bird eggs. Rice fields are attractive natural nesting grounds for all sorts of aquatic birds, especially in the spring when the fields are green with cover crops. When it comes time to turn those cover crops into the soil, the Lundbergs take it upon themselves to rescue the birds’ eggs, delivering them to state hatcheries. No wonder they have received numerous awards including the first-ever “Greenie” from California State University, Chico, at last year’s “This Way to Sustainability” conference and were recognized by the Conservation Security Program which was developed by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to promote stewardship of the land.
As we headed for the car, Wendell offered another answer, out of the blue. “Brown,” he said. “That’s changed too.”
He meant brown rice, the whole-grain version of rice itself and almost unknown back in the ’50s when Wendell and his brothers were first planting. Brown rice has become the core of their business, so much so that the family has developed its own proprietary brands, including Wehani (named as a pseudo-acronym for the four brothers plus their father: Wendell, Eldon, Homer, Albert, Harlan), a red rice that’s nutty and a little crunchy. Today, Jessica Lundberg leads the efforts at the seed nursery where they work to develop new varieties that will stand up to organic production without depleting the soil and damaging their most important resource.
The next day, I flew back to Connecticut to meet Bruce, my partner, full of inspiration. I was convinced that we could get more whole-grain rice into our diets. All rice grains have four basic components: the protective outer hull (which must be removed), the bran and the germ (both of which are removed to create white rice), and the creamy endosperm. With the bran and germ intact, high-fiber brown rice has good amounts of vitamins, minerals and beneficial phytochemicals. Plus it counts toward the three 1⁄2-cup servings of whole grains we’re supposed to eat each day according to the USDA.
We got to work on some delicious new rice recipes, starting with meatloaf that blends Black Japonica and aromatic curry into the meat. Then we moved on to croquettes made with medium-grain brown rice complemented by creamy goat cheese. We were on a roll, rounding out our batch of recipes using earthy Wehani instead of white rice to update dirty rice, a New Orleans favorite. In the end we discovered there are tons of tasty ways to get whole-grain rice into our diet.
We can only imagine that Wendell would be proud of our efforts. If he could work himself up to say it, of course.
—Contributing editors Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein’s most recent book is The Ultimate Cook Book (William Morrow, 2007).