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.
A History of Innovation
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.
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.
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.
A Butte County Treasure
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.