I was very fortunate to be selected for the 2011 Rice Leadership Development Class. The Class consists of four sessions that provide an in-depth education about many rice related topics and also provide leadership training. You can find more information about this program here. I strongly encourage and eligible individuals to apply.
Last month, we had our third class session and will be wrapping up the program in Washington, D.C. in February. I’ve been looking forward to this session in California from the very beginning of the program. I’m very proud to be a part of the California rice industry and knew that it would be an impressive visit for our other classmates from other parts of the country. However, I was unprepared and pleasantly surprised to see how much I would personally gain during this week.
We began Monday morning visiting with the California Rice Commission. The Rice Commission does a fantastic job positioning California Rice as an environmental leader. For so many other Ag-related industries, there is a constant battle between the industry members and the regulators. The CRC has taken a completely different approach and is working with the regulators and conservationists. California Rice is now viewed as the environmental stewards of the valley, emphasizing water use efficiency, drastic reduction in burning straw and the importance of the rice fields to the countless species of wildlife that depend on the rice fields for their habitat.
Some of the other stops we made that I felt were especially impactful included a stop to the Glenn Colusa Irrigation district. I never gave much thought to how water is actually pulled from the river for irrigation, or how you would need to prevent pulling in fish. The size and length of their new fish screen was remarkable. A screen that is 1,100 ft long, and slats that are no wider than the flat side of a penny means that no fish, no matter how small could possibly be pulled into these irrigation canals. I took a photo to better show off how small the slats are on this fish screen.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about these sessions is the breadth of different types of agriculture we are being exposed to. For example, seeing the crawfish farms in Louisiana, or now in California, seeing the almond, walnut and pistachio farms, or the vegetable crops and lettuce farming. Even visiting Napa Valley before the class started helped put things in perspective. One of the most interesting things I learned about all these different types of agriculture is what the different land values are worth. We spoke about rice ground in Louisiana or Arkansas which might sell for around $3,500 per acre (more or less), and then we saw the rice ground in California, which most people will agree is at least $8,000 per acre, maybe up to $10,000 depending on who you ask. Visiting the lettuce farms was a shock. The land values alone are about $35,000 per acre before you even account for the literally hundreds of people you need to employ due to hand-harvesting. Seeing the amount of overhead that goes into these operations makes you wonder how these guys can stay in business year after year. One bad year, or just a low priced market and their fixed costs will eat them alive. The lettuce farms are also treated like a processing plant. Since it is a fresh market product and they have had a history of some potentially dangerous things like e-coli, dogs are not allowed on the farms and you are required to wear hairnets just to walk in to the field!
It is a very surreal experience and makes me happy to be in the rice business! We had an opportunity to stop in Napa before the session started, and out of curiosity, we asked the tour guide at the Robert Mondavi Winery about approximate land values for an acre of wine grapes in Napa Valley. $300,000 per acre!
Brendan O’Donnell is Vice President, Sales at The Sun Valley Rice Company, LLC, which mills, packages and markets premium California rice both domestically and around the world. He is the Fifth generation of his family to be involved in California agriculture and has been marketing and promoting California rice since 2007. He is a graduate of UC Davis with a B.S. in Agricultural Systems and Environment and Communications. Brendan is also an active member of the Rice Leadership Development Program. When he’s not selling rice, Brendan enjoys golfing, skiing and spending time with his family. He and his wife, Erin have Two children, Bridget and Liam.