Richvale Agritourism & Locally Grown

Growing Innovation: Lundberg Family Farms

The sto­ry of Lund­berg Fam­i­ly Farms is a sto­ry of inno­va­tion, one that dates all the way back to the 1930s. Albert and Frances Lund­berg lived in Nebras­ka as the Dust Bowl took hold of the land around them, and like many who made their liv­ing farm­ing in the Great Plains states dur­ing that time, they found it both a dev­as­tat­ing and instruc­tive dis­as­ter. Albert and his fam­i­ly picked up their lives and head­ed west, even­tu­al­ly end­ing up in Rich­vale, a small town in Butte Coun­ty, where the sto­ry of one of America’s best-loved rice grow­ers would begin.

The Lund­bergs had farmed corn and wheat pri­or to their relo­ca­tion, but they found the clay soil of their new home more suit­able for rice. If the Dust Bowl had taught them any­thing, it was that no farm could thrive with­out healthy soil, and many exist­ing agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices were not help­ing mat­ters. They want­ed to do things dif­fer­ent­ly, and over the course of the lives of chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, that con­cern for the envi­ron­ment and the pio­neer­ing inno­va­tion it forged is exact­ly what the farm has become best known for.

Growing Innovation: Lundberg Family Farms
Harvesting - Courtesy Lundberg Family Farms

A His­to­ry of Innovation

Envi­ron­men­tal Stewardship

The company’s most endur­ing lega­cy has always been one of envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship, and it’s worked toward that goal by remain­ing open-mind­ed and nev­er being con­tent with the sta­tus quo. Lund­berg was one of the first farms to mill its own rice, and one of the first to brand and sell it as its own, some­thing that still isn’t done by the vast major­i­ty of rice farm­ers in the state. Albert’s sons helped their father build their ear­li­est mill (and rice dry­er ) quite lit­er­al­ly out of scrap lum­ber and chew­ing gum, so it just goes to show that you don’t need ample resources to think out­side the box.

Albert had already been a pio­neer in tech­niques relat­ed to soil health. He allowed fields to fal­low, plant­ed rota­tion crops, and instilled the idea in his chil­dren to always leave the soil bet­ter than they found it. They also invent­ed a machine to press rice straw back into the fields, an endeav­or that was messy, ini­tial­ly unsuc­cess­ful, and got a lot of neigh­bor­ing farm­ers in the com­mu­ni­ty to raise their eye­brows — some­thing they’d get used to doing as they watched the Lund­bergs work over the years. 

Ulti­mate­ly, Albert came up with the idea of a cage roller made out of weld­ed rebar that did the trick with­out get­ting bogged down in the mud, and it proved a for­ward-think­ing inno­va­tion years lat­er when Cal­i­for­nia began to impose strict lim­its on the amount of rice straw that could be burned. Burn­ing may be a cheap and effi­cient way to dis­pose of unwant­ed mate­r­i­al, but in addi­tion to being bad for the air, Albert saw that it wast­ed nutri­ents that could be returned to the earth.

Many times, that open-mind­ed approach has built suc­cess on top of a grave­yard of repeat­ed fail­ures. In fact, some of the organ­ic farm­ing tech­niques that are now com­mon­ly in use by rice grow­ers around Cal­i­for­nia were born of a Lund­berg field that had been chalked up to a total loss. In the ear­li­est years, Albert had dis­liked the bur­geon­ing chem­i­cal farm­ing trends that involved heavy use of pes­ti­cides, but organ­ic farm­ing wasn’t yet a known quan­ti­ty even in the days of Albert’s chil­dren, a new and dif­fi­cult indus­try that didn’t yet have a name. 

Lund­berg became an ardent ear­ly adopter of the prac­tice in the late 1960s, and find­ing its foot­ing neces­si­tat­ed a great deal of tri­al and error. Weed con­trol was a per­pet­u­al chal­lenge, and dur­ing one plant­i­ng sea­son, a field of organ­ic rice had got­ten so over­grown with weeds that it was deemed unsal­vage­able. The farm­ers dried the field and were pre­pared to plow it under when they found the weeds were dying faster than the rice. They decid­ed to watch and wait, and when the trend con­tin­ued, they crossed their fin­gers, turned the water back on, and found that the rice came back to life and made a crop.

Growing Innovation: Lundberg Family Farms
Waterway at Lundberg - Courtesy Lundberg Family Farm

The Dri­ve to Improve

That sin­gle rev­e­la­to­ry event of the ear­ly 1970s changed the tra­jec­to­ry of rice farm­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, and the prac­tice is still in use today. Lund­berg now also uses it in com­bi­na­tion with an oppo­site weed con­trol tech­nique. Flood­ed fields are seed­ed by plane first, and the water is kept around 12 inch­es deep to kill inva­sive grass­es. The rice can sur­vive the flood­ing up to 48 hours longer than the grass, so the fields are drained dur­ing that win­dow and the dry-down process elim­i­nates the weeds that remain.

Despite this long lega­cy of iter­a­tion and improve­ment, Lund­berg keeps an ear to the ground for new inno­va­tions and exper­i­ments with its own tech­niques. Its lat­est hopes lie in drill seed­ing, which can be used in fields with lighter soil. This idea involves dry­ing only the top of the soil after charg­ing it with water, then com­ing back with equip­ment to scratch the dry top­soil to kill weeds. A roller seals in the low­er-lying mois­ture, and a drill seed­er is used to inject seeds into it, about three inch­es or so below the sur­face. The rice will man­age to grow six to eight inch­es before the water is turned back on, and while new weeds will grow, the rice has enough of a head start to thrive. This can lead to sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter yields in areas with the right soil, as it reduces the stress on the grow­ing crop.

But soil health and organ­ic farm­ing are only two parts of a big­ger sto­ry. The over­all health of the envi­ron­ment is an area where Lund­berg wants to estab­lish a bench­mark, with the aim of improv­ing its prac­tices over time. It’s pur­chased off­sets with some of its prof­its, such as invest­ing in tree plant­i­ng, in order to achieve net zero or bet­ter on its car­bon foot­print, which it’s spent time ana­lyz­ing along with that of its 40 or so con­tract­ed grow­ers, and it’s worked with the NRCS to bet­ter under­stand the impact farm­ers have on the environment. 

There isn’t always per­fect con­sen­sus on what the best answers are, so Lund­berg wants to help cre­ate that con­sen­sus as it improves its own prac­tices. The reuse of rice straw, for instance, has been a great boon to their envi­ron­men­tal impact, but there’s an increased release of methane due to the straw’s car­bon con­tent, mak­ing it an imper­fect solu­tion. Lund­berg con­tin­ues to mon­i­tor its process­es and gath­er infor­ma­tion to improve on already ground­break­ing tech­niques, always striv­ing to be a bet­ter stew­ard of the Sacra­men­to Valley’s lim­it­ed resources.

Growing Innovation: Lundberg Family Farms
High-tech greenhouse - Courtesy Lundberg Family Farm

Water’s Role and Importance

Water, one of the most pre­cious resources, is also a major con­sid­er­a­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Butte Coun­ty. Lund­berg works with con­tract­ed satel­lite tech­nol­o­gy to mea­sure evap­o­tran­spi­ra­tion , which allows it to deter­mine exact­ly how much water is used by crops (rather than mere­ly mea­sur­ing the total water deliv­ered). Under­stand­ing how water use changes based on rice vari­eties being grown, the soil types they’re grown in, and even the dif­fer­ences between organ­ic and con­ven­tion­al pro­duc­tion, allows them to make informed choic­es, and water excess­es are used to recharge the aquifer or are drained back to riv­er and stream sys­tems. Rice farm­ing nat­u­ral­ly lends itself to pro­vid­ing habi­tat for water­fowl as well, mak­ing it an indus­try that ben­e­fits Butte County’s nat­ur­al land­scape in a wide vari­ety of ways.

It’s this ongo­ing vig­i­lance and con­cern with devel­op­ing bet­ter prac­tices that earned Lund­berg one of Rodale Institute’s Organ­ic Pio­neer Awards for 2020, an espe­cial­ly pres­ti­gious achieve­ment for a fam­i­ly-owned busi­ness. The award usu­al­ly goes to indi­vid­ual sci­en­tists, farm­ers, CEOs, doc­tors, or pro­fes­sors in var­i­ous fields, which high­lights just how impact­ful the Lund­berg lega­cy con­tin­ues to be despite roots that go back near­ly a century.

Growing Innovation: Lundberg Family Farms
Waterfowl feeding - Courtest Lundberg Family Farms

A Butte Coun­ty Treasure

Local­ly Grown & Loved

That rela­tion­ship to the coun­ty — its envi­ron­ment, agri­cul­ture, and com­mu­ni­ty — is an inte­gral part of Lundberg’s plat­form. It grows an entire third of its prod­ucts, which includes upwards of 17 dif­fer­ent vari­eties of rice, from sta­ples like bas­mati, jas­mine, and sushi rice, to arbo­rio, black, and red rices. Some of these are pub­lic vari­eties grown at the Rice Exper­i­ment Station in Big­gs, while oth­ers are devel­oped by Lundberg’s own plant breed­ers and nurs­ery team. The com­pa­ny is even branch­ing out into quinoa, with its sights set on becom­ing the largest quinoa pro­duc­er in the country.

The local com­mu­ni­ty has always been proud of Lundberg’s stew­ard­ship of the land, and local busi­ness­es (like S&S Organ­ic Produce and New Earth Market in Chico) always keep a healthy vari­ety of its prod­ucts in stock. Giv­en that sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of the fam­i­ly have been born and raised in the area, it like­ly comes as no sur­prise that there’s a lot of com­mu­ni­ty love, and Lund­berg is always eager to share that love with visitors. 

While 2020 saw the farm tem­porar­i­ly close its on-site store for safe­ty rea­sons, and tours are also on hia­tus, Lund­berg has ramped up its online pres­ence by shar­ing videos, all man­ner of deli­cious recipes (includ­ing veg­an and veg­e­tar­i­an dish­es), and glimpses into farm life and pro­duc­tion through Face­book and Insta­gram —friend­ly reminders that soon, all will be wel­come to once again expe­ri­ence Butte County’s vibrant rice farm­ing cul­ture firsthand.