Pioneering Organic Rice Grower, Lundberg Family Farms, Sees Sustainability as Pragmatic Imperative
February 11, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
Seventy-five years ago, Albert and Frances Lundberg moved from the John Steinbeckian Dust Bowl of Nebraska to California to try their hand at farming land that had not yet been destroyed by pretty much the same challenges farmers face today – drought and poor soil management.
Albert had seen the results of shortsighted farm husbandry and passed along his philosophy of sustainable agriculture to his four sons, Eldon, Wendell, Harlan and Homer, who established Lundberg Family Farms, and pioneered organic rice growing in America.
Third-generation farmer, Jessica Lundberg, summed up the enterprise’s ongoing commitment to sustainability as more than an abstract liberal value. It’s a pragmatic imperative.
“When my grandparents left dried-up Nebraska and came to Northern California, they had new-found appreciation for being stewards of the land,” Lundberg said. “Soil is a living organism and must be treated well.”
The Lundbergs moved smack into the Sacramento Valley, whose heavy clay soils, hot, dry summers and access to plenty of water (thanks to abundant nearby snow melt) presented a new growing landscape for them.
“You can’t do orchard crops up here,” Lundberg said. “The soil is so dense, water doesn’t percolate. But rice, which grows in water, is perfect.” So they started growing rice.
In 1969, the Lundbergs built their own rice mill so that they could fully control the quality of their product and provide milling services for other local farmers. And by the time a macrobiotic food business moved into the area, they were ready to show some interest in the then-novel request to grow rice without using chemicals.
“Having our own mill meant farm storage,” Lundberg said. “We could mill on demand and there were plenty of people who wanted the more gently milled brown rice.”
They would mill bulk orders of rice and drive it up and down the coast, stopping in at the growing number of “health food stores” that were cropping up, ready to unload their organic brown rice. Eventually, brightly painted camper vans would show up at the farms, and long-haired young people in tie-dye shirts would load up 100-pound bags of rice.
“You could laugh at the hippies, but they were smart,” Lundberg said. “They were the ones who spread the word, and ended up being our local family farmers and distributors.”
(The fact that their product is gluten-free appeals to the hippies’ children today.)
By the late 70s, Lundberg Family Farms was selling everything they could produce, and were faced with the big questions any company faces at such a crossroads: do we buy more land? Do we bring in new growers? The Lundbergs put their money into building the brand, contracting with other growers to grow different rice varieties to specification, and forming a 40-family cooperative that, today, grows 17 different varieties of rice.
They added a packaging component to the business, so today you can find Lundberg Family Farms rice, rice cakes, rice chips, rice syrup, rice flour, pastas and heat-n-eat rice bowls at major food chains across the country.
Through it all, Lundberg said the family would research techniques that would, as grandfather Albert put it, “leave the land better than we found it.”
Rice grows in water flushed into fields banked with levees. Though there is flow that returns to creeks and rivers, the Lundbergs have holding tanks that allow any fertilizers to degrade before returning to nature, and insures that nitrogen doesn’t contaminate aquifers.
About 73 percent of their acreage is devoted to CCOF certified organic crops and the rest is “eco-farmed” – several steps toward full organic that includes integrated pest management systems. Crops are kept carefully segregated onsite. They will never grow GMO crops, Lundberg declared emphatically.
Eschewing past practices of simply burning the straw left in the fields after harvest, the Lundbergs return it to the soil. They employ crop rotation, using “cover crops” like Purple Vetch, a leguminous flowering plant that balances the nitrogen in the soil naturally before spring planting. It also acts as a protective habitat for migrating waterfowl.
They use water as a weed control system, obviating the need for herbicides, and employ food-grade carbon dioxide to kill pests in stored crops. But, Lundberg said, energy is their big challenge now and they are meeting it with multifaceted approaches to reducing their carbon footprint.
“We buy renewable energy credits from a wind farm for immediate impact,” Lundberg said. “And we invested in a solar panel array attached to our rice dryers. It’s been 11 years and now they’re paid off. Twenty percent of our electricity is generated onsite and, as we retrofit, we’re looking to add more. We’re also looking into biogas.”
Lundberg said that future challenges will always be elements farmers can’t control – weather, water and the appearance of new pests. But she’s confident that the fourth generation of Lundbergs will keep the family farm humming to the same tune.
“We think it’s exciting,” she said. “I’m proud to be involved in food production of something so healthy and basic. We can’t forget that we are working with a living system, and organics is the best example for the future!”