Bounty for State's Rice Growers : Farmers, enjoying kudos for their reforms, now tap the Japanese market

Rice growers were once considered the scourge of California agribusiness, accused of being water hogs, pesticide abusers and even air polluters because of their post-harvest burning of rice straw. Today these same growers are considered a model of modern agribusiness, winning over critics as well as state and federal officials for their conscientious new farming methods. The praise is deserved.

Now, thanks to their second-largest rice crop ever, the bounty from a wet year, the state's rice farmers are well positioned to take advantage of favorable market conditions: Bad weather has wrecked crops in competing rice-growing regions of the world. Japan has the worst shortfall, prompting the Japanese government to allow large quantities of emergency rice imports. Importing the grain to Japan is normally forbidden for food security and political reasons. The first shipment of California medium-grain japonica table rice headed for Japan last week.

The crack in the rice wall might widen into a permanent opening of the Japanese market should world trade talks conclude in mid-December. Ironically, the seeds used to start California's rice industry in the early 1900s came from Japan. The state's rice farmers have long sought access to Japan, where consumers are willing to pay significantly more for quality rice. Higher prices are increasingly important to farmers because recent dry years have necessitated cuts in rice acreage.

In addition, farmers have cut their water use, slashed pesticide residues and supported state legislation that phases out the much resented, though efficient, practice of burning rice straw after harvests. All these measures have cost farmers money and yields. Only the end of the recent drought helped produce this year's big crop.

Besides creeping urbanization, environmental pressures are reshaping California's rice bowl. Positive changes include an industry campaign to reclaim for the benefit of wildlife hundreds of thousands of acres of onetime wetlands that were drained long ago. The farmers are joined in this ambitious effort by the influential water authority Marc Reisner, once a staunch critic of the rice industry. That alone says a lot.

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