Grant Lundberg is CEO of Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale, California, which he describes as a vertically integrated consumer packaged goods company. His grandparents started farming rice in Northern California after leaving the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl. In 1969, his father and uncles committed to producing in ways that are now certified organic. Today the company distributes its rice and rice products throughout the country. Lundberg talked with Agri-Pulse about how consumer demand and drought are impacting organic rice in California.
How is your farm faring in these dry times?
We farm in a couple water districts. They've had 25% to 50% reductions in allocations. Of course, being located here in northern California, it is a very rich watershed in the sense that we have the Sierras and the Cascades. The other part is, we have a lot of surface water districts that are, in a sense, recharging. The plant uses water to build the crop, but the water that is on the fields either is percolating back into the soil or going back into the streams and drain systems to go back out into the Bay. And so that cycle is unique and really special. This year we've had constraints. We've done some reductions in planting. We've also offset the reductions in water allocation with some pumping. We usually don't pump here in this area, the last time that happened was in 2015 when there was a drought and we had restrictions.
As someone who's been farming organically for so long, do you see an increase in people who are conventional growers coming to you to ask about transitioning to organic?
I think the driver for that is market. People aren't going to go to organic unless there's a market for it. The market fluctuates over time. We've been in it, raising organic rice, since 1969 so we've seen it move all over the place. In general, demand for organic rice is growing, but growers aren’t going to go there unless they have a handler that will give them a contract that will say, “yeah, I want to move this.” The growers that started with us early, obviously we needed their rice. But even today, there's a lot of growers that are just committed to the organic production philosophy and really understand why that makes sense and why it's a holistic way that they want to embrace. (Other people) may be looking at it more from an economic standpoint. Either way, we’re still going to get the same outcome, we’re going to get the product we need, more acres will become organic. And I think that’s good for everyone.
How did your farm become organic and what are some additional sustainability practices in your operation, beyond what’s required for certification?
My grandma and grandpa, my dad and his brothers moved from Nebraska in ’37 during the Dust Bowl. They had experienced the degradation that farming practices could cause when coupled with an environmental catastrophe and they saw the importance of farming practices as a way to benefit the environment. They wanted to incorporate the stubble back into the ground, and that was a very differentiating factor for our farm and family all the way to the early 1990s because in California, at that point, all the growers would burn their stubble.
Then the idea of resting the land, leaving it fallow or using other crops like vetch and oats to help continue to build the soil nutrition and health, was important to them and they incorporated that into their farming practice. Then, in the late ’60s a local resident came to them and said “Look, we know the way you farm is different from other people, we think you should consider growing organic rice.”
They decided that was a really good way to communicate with consumers and tell their story. They felt, and rightly so, that what they were doing on the farm had value. And so in 1969 they started a mill and started selling to food co-ops around the United States that were interested in natural and organic foods. That whole segment of the food industry was just in its infancy.
The other thing that they realized was there was a synchronicity with the environment in the rice culture. They started flooding fields to get the straw to decompose and they noticed there was lots of waterfowl that were attracted to those fields.
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On the manufacturing side, as we had to depend more and more on holding rice through the hot months, we had to figure out how to store rice without the use of chemicals. We developed ways that we do sanitation, ways that we use heat, ways that we use (carbon dioxide) for bug control if there's an infestation. All those things combined into our integrated pest management system for grain storage.
We started to build solar at the turn of the century, and so right now about 25% of our electrical needs is generated onsite. Since 2004 we’ve bought offsets for our power usage. We're a zero waste facility. In our packaging, we’re using post-consumer recycled waste and also reducing our use of flexible (plastic) packaging. That's a super challenge for everyone right now, but an important one that we're working on.
How much of a balancing act has it been to maintain your commitment to sustainability and environmental goals, while also having to make a profit?
It's worked well for us and that's because our consumers are interested in these issues around resource use and environmental impact. We found a consumer who is willing to pay a premium, in a sense, to get their food grown in a certain way. People who appreciate it are willing to pay the extra. It does cost more and so I think that's a super important equation to master. If a grower can't find a market that appreciates what they're doing then it's really hard to keep doing it. We had a value-based idea and we lucked out that we found the value-based consumers that we could connect with.
What do you see on the horizon, as far as either growth in the domestic market or potential for the export market?
In the pandemic, I think people got really focused on nutrition and health, and I think it reprioritized things for them and organic food is a part of that solution. There is opportunity to kind of grow that awareness with consumers and create new purchases. That may be the biggest opportunity is to get those connections made and get the consumer to understand, “I have a role in this, in the choices I make, and I can make those choices that help drive our approach to changing the climate change direction right now.”
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