Although rice paddies more often invoke images of southeast Asia than California, this agricultural commodity is running strong in in northern California. The industry began early in part to feed newly arrived Chinese miners and railroad workers.
It continues to thrive today, with more than 95% of California’s rice grown in the Sacramento Valley. There are more than 500,000 acres of rice within a two-hour drive of Sacramento. California is the second most important rice state within the United States, producing about 20% of the nation’s crop in a typical year, mainly high-quality, medium grain japonica rice that is favored in Northeast Asia and in parts of the Middle East and Mediterranean region.
Rice ranks as our state’s ninth most important agricultural export commodity. Japan receives about half the California export total, with California in turn supplying about half of Japan’s imports. To many cultures, rice is such an important food source that its origin and/or brand is extremely important, and California rice is quite highly esteemed in parts of Asia.
Nearly all U.S. sushi comes from California’s short- and medium-grain Japonica rice grown from Placer County north to Tehama County. (Arkansas remains the nation’s leading rice grower, producing long-grain varieties common in everyday recipes). Federal agricultural statistics show rice growers, largely in Placer, Sutter, Yuba, Yolo, Butte, Glenn and Colusa counties, produced $2.8 billion worth of sushi-grade rice in three seasons from 2007 through 2009.
We export 50 to 60 percent of the crop. The northern Sacramento Valley’s medium-grain rice, with its softer, stickier consistency, appeals to Asian taste buds, as well as those in the Mediterranean who associate it with Italian risotto recipes. The biggest importers of California rice are Japan, South Korea, Jordan, Taiwan and the European Union, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The rest is consumed domestically, much of it in restaurants.