Planting Rice By Air Tractor

This is another Rice Farmer video. It is the planting step. We don’t have a herd of women out stuffing baby rice into the mud in California. Instead, seed is soaked a couple of days to get it ready to sprout, then spread over the fields using a crop duster type airplane.

Things I noticed:

He floods his field 2 inches deep at planting. A point I’d not mentioned before is that the flooding must be uniform. Fields have a dirt berm about a foot or two tall that follows a contour line at every place where the height difference is too much. Inside a contour segment the land will be leveled to the inch. You can take 1 inch of water on one side and 2 on the other, or even 3; but you start to get yield differences between them. More weeds on one side, different growth patterns. Over the years, each farmer will try to move some dirt from high areas to low areas and every year, when flooding, will spot where there’s a high spot to take down another inch or a low one to fill a little. Over decades the fields reach an incredible degree of level. Yet every year when the contours are put back in, the level is assessed. The little weir boxes (he is shown shoveling one out) are used so water can be 2 inches (or a bit more if the farmer likes deeper seeding) deep on both sides, even though the fields are a few inches different heights. One of the jobs at flood is to adjust all the weir boxes. (When the fields are drained you run around pulling all the boards out of the weir boxes)

Why is rice flooded? It is, in fact, just an ancient form of weed control. Rice can sprout and grow under water, most weeds can’t. You CAN grow rice on plain dirt, not flooded. Just be prepared to do weeding. Rice, being a grass, is sensitive to general herbicides so sprays don’t help much unless they are selective to broadleaf only.

There are no Flag Holders in the application. It looks like the job of holding a big flag on each end of the pass of the airplane to tell them where to drop has been replaced by GPS. Probably a good thing.

One of my high school classmates had that job. One of the jobs that “girls could do” on the farm was flag holding. You had to be good at getting the exact spacing from your last hold point, and moving just after the plane passed to be ready for the next pass. She liked the money, and holding the flag (even though fairly large) didn’t require too much strength. Boys tended to get the dirty muck shoveling job where the strength was necessary and being covered in mud was more a ‘guy thing” ;-). She was less fond of the few times that there was no space to stand far enough away from the drop location and “stuff” would get rained on her. Seeds not a big issues. Fertilizer? Just don’t breath in for a moment. But various pesticides were a real issue. IF It looked like the drop had gone far enough to reach you, there was an art to timing your exit from the drop area. As the airplane approaches, and you know the pilot is no longer using the flag as an aim point, you point the flag in the direction of the next pass (easier to run with it like a lance) and run to the next hold point, about 30 feet away. Done well, you miss the dump even if it does reach the hold point. IIRC, she only got hit with a dump once. After that was more fleet-footed ;-) A time now passed, it would seem.

He states that the seed supplier is just another rice farmer but one who stores his seeds instead of selling them for food, and supplies the seeds for the next year to other farmers. True, but incomplete. The Seedsman also has a Foundation Stock of seeds and keeps a set of ascensions OR gets replacement Foundation Seed from an upstream supplier.

The below link is not in California, but in Louisiana. A similar function happens in California at the California Rice Research Station mentioned in the prior video. Variety development and foundation stock maintenance. The two geographies have different climates so develope different varieties most suited to each location. California developed the Calrose type in 1948 at that rice station.

Calrose is a medium grain rice variety, notable for being the founding variety of the Californian rice industry.


Calrose (USDA # C.I. 8988) originated and was developed at the Rice Experiment Station near Biggs, California and released to California growers in 1948. It grew in popularity with growers, marketers, and consumers to become the prominent rice variety in California until the late 1970s. Specific processing and cooking properties were associated with Calrose. Over the years improved new varieties with Calrose grain cooking and processing characteristics were released. These medium-size grains were commingled with Calrose in storage and later replaced the variety in commercial production due to their superior performance at many levels. Although that variety of Calrose is no longer grown, Calrose has become a name recognized in trade and the market place for the California type medium grain rice. The name “rose” indicates medium-grain shape (Blue Rose is an earlier medium grain developed in Louisiana) and “Cal” to indicate California origin and production. Eighty percent of the California rice crop is Calrose rice.


Calrose rice is the most recognized variety of California rice in the United States and abroad, especially in the Pacific. In Hawaii, Guam and other islands, Calrose rice accounts for more than 90% of the rice consumed. The variety is grown in other areas of the world where growing conditions are suitable, such as Australia.

After cooking, Calrose rice grains hold flavor well, and are soft and stick together, making it good for use in sushi.

Calrose was once a much sought-after variety in parts of Asia, where it was considered exotic. There was even a black market for the variety and it was smuggled in large quantities.

Lately “long grain”, “Jasmine” and “Basmati” rice have gained favor with the dining public. I’m not sure how the local rice industry is responding, or if it is bothering at all. I stopped at COSTCO yesterday and went to buy a big bag of rice. They had a local brown rice that was Calrose type, but all the white rice was long grain, and much of it imported. Yes, rice being imported from India and Asia. I can only surmise it is to supply the large import of Indian Computer Programmers and Chinese immigrants in Silicon Valley with a familiar brand and type of rice.

I’d always wondered why burlap bags smelled that way, then had some of the “aromatic” type rice. To me, it smells of burlap. I get all those memories of hauling burlap bags of walnuts off to the buyer. (Kids would pick up walnuts from all the walnut trees on public land or where the home owner didn’t want them, then sell the bags for pocket money). Needless to say I’m not all that fond of “aromatic” rice ;-) So I presume that the Jute plant shares some biochemistry with some rice varieties.

These folks cover the seed process pretty well:

One of the most important functions of the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station is the production of foundation rice seed. Foundation seed is the first step in the commercialization of a rice variety. This seed is purchased from the station by seed growers who plant it to produce registered seed. Registered seed is then planted to produce certified seed, which is the most common type of seed planted by rice growers to produce commercial rice. Each seed field in the state, regardless of class, must pass a two-stage inspection process required by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF).

The first step is the field inspection. Just before harvest, each seed field is thoroughly inspected by LDAF field inspectors, who walk the field looking for noxious weeds, off-types and other factors that might disqualify the field according to rice seed certification requirements. The second step is laboratory analysis of a representative sample of each seed lot. After each lot has been dried, processed and packaged for distribution, LDAF personnel will sample the packages to produce a representative sample that is sent to the state seed lab in Baton Rouge. There, the sample is subjected to a number of analyses to determine germination percentage, absence of red rice, purity, etc., again according to certification standards. Seed lots are also tested for the presence of transgenic traits. If a lot of seed passes this rigorous testing regime, seed tags are provided to be attached to the seed packages, indicating the seed has qualified to be sold as a class of certified seed.

The Rice Research Station produces foundation seed primarily of varieties developed by the station. However, if a variety produced at another university looks to have potential benefits for Louisiana producers, that seed will be produced also. Similarly, foundation seed of Louisiana-developed varieties are often produced by foundation seed programs in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

Note the lack of California in that list of States. We don’t need humidity resistance, nor resistance to excess flooding from constant rains through the growing phase. Our wind risk is usually much lower too. We DO need more tolerance of occasional drying and resistance to constant intense hot sun. Our bugs are also quite different and we have a different weed population. Different varieties for different conditions.

Yes, you CAN grow other varieties here, if you like. Yes you CAN save your own rice seeds and be your own seedsman (though you will not be certified and can’t put their stamp on your product). And yes you can become a seedsman with certification if you go through the process and all the certification and such. FWIW, I’ve done a tiny little test grow of a foreign type rice, without flooding. There are some “exotic” Asian “dry field” types or mountain types of rice that are not normally raised with flooding; and I trialed one of them. It wasn’t hard, but getting enough to harvest is an issue in a small garden. What I grew was one of the Red Rice types (note they say they look for red rice as a disqualifier for certification as their type). I’m partial to food with color, so was interested in going in the other direction from fluffy white.

So that’s what’s up stream from the farmer buying “registered seed” from his seedsman. It isn’t just some guy saving his crop from last year.

With that, here’s the video with nice aerial shots of “my home turf” near Oroville and Willows:

12 minutes of the seeding process:

Extended GoPro footage. You can really see the contour barriers in the footage at the end when he’s playing the song “My California”. 13 minutes:

Here’s the aerial rice tour he talks about in the other videos. In the intro he says the crop duster service is located in Biggs about a mile from his fields. That’s news to me. There was no duster service there when I was in the area. It makes sense though. Flying from one side of the service area (Willows) to the other would take more fuel than having a base nearer the middle (even if you started the business in one smaller area). I’m assuming the “Willows Air” name means Willows California and not some guy named Willow for Willow’s…

OK, my estimate of where he was located was off by about 15 miles. He is just outside of Biggs and that’s about 8 miles south of the line between Willows and Oroville, and more on the east side of the valley rice area than the west side. I started to suspect that in the prior video as the irregular edges of some of the rice fields and the valley oaks is more indicative of the east side (or at least was, 50 years ago ;-) and nearer to Oroville Afterbays area (about 5 miles north east of Biggs).

So a few miles off of exactly my home turf, but close enough as I ran all over that whole area. Fished rivers from the Feather River out of Oroville to the Sacramento at Colusa, and from Chico Creek in Chico to various irrigation ditches and creeks near Marysville / Yuba City area. Did frog gigging in the various canals too. (Love fresh frogs legs, BTW. The ones in stores, if you find them, are devoid of flavor; but fresh is very nice. About like 1/2 way between mild white fish and chicken, but without any fishiness and not as strong a flavor as chicken). Gray Lodge Wildlife Area is a great place for duck and pheasant hunting too! The video has some great views of the Oroville dam and spillway as it was reconstructed.

So, with that, an aerial tour of my old stomping grounds. 7 minutes:

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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5 Responses to Planting Rice By Air Tractor

  1. erl happ says:

    Love this story. All about the adaptability and resourcefulness of farmers. Great story teller too.

  2. E.M.Smith says:

    Nice to hear that. I was beginning to wonder if anyone liked the view of rice country by air…

    I grew up with crop dusters all around, harvesters and tractors in motion, and miles and miles of rice paddies turning into green carpets. Then pheasant hunting after the harvest. Farmers talking shop about how they were coping with this or that problem.

    It builds into you at a very early age that you never give up, never surrender, to The Problem of the day as there is always a problem ever day and your JOB is to overcome them, adapt, and carry on. Borrow a harvester from a friend, have a part air freighted in, weld up a broken chunk, hang a hose into the river if the well is having issues, etc. etc.

  3. Steve Crook says:

    Thanks for the weed control factoid. It’s interesting to read about the levelling over time. I wonder if, far in the future archaeologists will be wondering why some areas are incredibly flat.

    It also reminds me of the opposite effect. In the UK we have some areas of land that are wavey, known as ridge and furrow, being artefacts left after generations of farmers with their animal pulled ploughs during the middle ages.

  4. E.M.Smith says:

    @Steve Crook:

    You’re welcome! It’s one of those things where you just assume the rice must want it since it’s always done… then you hear farmers talking about choosing a depth of flood (like the video does 2 inches and says others do more) and find out the argument is over which kills more weeds vs has more algae bloom… So you ask about it… and find out the rice doesn’t care unless it drowns under feet of water.

    Some farmers run 2 inches to start, then as the rice tops the water, will slowly raise it an inch at a time, then again, when the rice is established, they start dropping it an inch at a time to none. It’s one of those things folks like to play with ;-) Changing all the weir boards… Other farmers don’t want to deal with all the boards and just “set it and forget it” until the rice is big enough to drain the field.

    In one of the the videos he talked about a “water hold” for his weed treatment chemicals. That’s something new to me, since there were no such regulations when I was a kid, so some of my information is very out of date. Perhaps all of it by now. We’re talking 50+ years ago…

    As to the flatness: By this time, most of the farms have settled on their contours. Only if something big happens is there a need to re-contour. For them, they only move the dirt around if they want to change it. When new land is put in service, it’s more dramatic. Large scrapers can be used.

    On one occasion, about 1960, I got to watch one of the larger farmers who had lots of curved and wiggly contours all over making small patches of fields; have a big crew of scrapers (“earth movers”) and a survey team of some sort take out all the old contours and move the dirt around in a major way to give him fewer fields with straighter contours between them (and larger drops between fields). Made it a lot easier to run the tractors and combines.

    Once satisfied with the contours, it’s mostly just a matter of noting at flood if you have a divot somewhere or a hump as the water pools or doesn’t cover it, then next ploughing time, fill in a little or knock down a little. Even that, after a generation, is pretty much a done deal (unless you get a low spot form from water washing dirt around).

    Some farmers are “lazy” (or just satisfied they have it right) and leave the contours in place for long periods of time. Others are more prone to take them out and put them back “tuning” it. I’ve never figured out why each does what they do. It may be a matter of size of the farm and what equipment they own vs need to rent. Or it might be how much they feel like moving dirt each year. I suspect it’s just another one of those “playing in the dirt” things. Some of it may also depend on how the water flows or how much they pay folks to adjust weirs. (Fewer weirs from larger fields means less mucking out weir boxes and adjusting them…) One of the things heard at the “cup and glasses” sink behind the counter – farmers talking about when they would re-contour, or not.

    The important bit is that there is no “one way” or “one pattern”. Different farmers will do it somewhat differently depending on their needs and interests.

    As to flatness:

    The town of Biggs in the video is about 160 miles from the San Francisco Bay. Call it 120 to the nearest edge “as the crow flies” (not quite sea level, but close). It is at an elevation of about 32 feet. So figure 1 foot per 3 3/4 miles. The whole place is already incredibly flat.

    It was part of a large inland sea at one time, and very prone to seasonal flooding as late at the ’60s when the last dams were completed. It has a very dense soil, and many areas have a “hardpan” or clay layer. Why it makes good rice land, the water doesn’t soak in ;-)

    When the European Settlers moved in, they took the “good loam” toward the hills of the Sierra Nevada and ignored the adobe “bad” land toward the middle of the valley. Largely planted orchards – almonds, peaches, pears. The poor and lower status folks were shoved off to that clay land. Then a guy from India moved in. Looked at the dirt, and thought “Rice!”. He bought a lot of land for nearly nothing (as it was “bad” land) and started the California rice industry. Suddenly, all those “lower status” folks were rich rice farmers ;-) Made for interesting dynamics in my home town…

    I’m not sure it is the same guy, but we had a grizzled looking old Indian guy, maybe 75, about 5 foot 5 inches wearing dirty overalls, hair a bit wild, who would come into our restaurant. He would order a “chicky sandwich” (which meant one fried egg between two slices of bread) and IIRC a cup of coffee or tea; and smoked a cigarette by “carburetting” it: Cigarette between middle and ring fingers, hand closed to a tunnel, smoke sucked from the thumb ring. Looked like a tramp to most folks. I only knew him as “Hindu Dean”. Only name I ever heard used. Funny thing is, he had so much land and so many trucks, his truck registration bill was bigger than most folks income. We had to train each new waitress to what a “chicky sandwich was” ;-)

    We fed a lot of his crews from time to time…

    That ridge and furrow thing is interesting… could be it was deliberate? In wet times you still get crop from the ridge, in dry you still get crop from the furrow?

  5. p.g.sharrow says:

    I did a ridge and furrow thing deliberately to an 80 acre field once. Had the neighbors hanging on the fence wondering if PG had gone insane! Being behind in prepping a new field after leveling a swale. I spread fertilizer and seed grain with a fertilizer spreader and then disked them in by disking up and down the length of the field so I had ridges an furrows across the width of the field. Then turned water into the head of the field furrows the next day. This saved 4 or 5 days preping the field as well as several tractor days of operations and got the field irrigated quickly and very well. Critical in an area where seasons are short and water availability short lived to snow melt runoff. That ridge and furrowed field was a bit of a bear to harvest, But!, I harvested the biggest crop anyone had ever seen off of that particular field! Some times you must improvise to fit the situation…pg

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