CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Elise Nelson’s farm is in Yolo County, with 5,700 fewer acres planted compared to last year. The article has been updated. (Oct. 24, 2022)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — This time of year, rice farmers like Elise Nelson get to see the results of many long hours spent tending to their crops.

“We’re very excited to get it to where it is today. Where you can see the harvesters and all of the equipment working behind us,” Nelson said.

But this year, as the California enters its third year of drought, many fields that are usually full of rice resemble dust bowls.

“It is difficult to see that because, you know, behind every fallowed field there’s a family, and there’s employees. And, I think I mentioned, the chain before of other families, and other industries and other businesses that rely on that grain being there and being planted every year.”

What You Need To Know

  • Over half of California's rice fields this year are unplanted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

  • Most of the country's sushi rice comes from California

  • California Rice Commission says rice contributes over $5 billion to the state’s economy per year

Nelson's farm is in Sutter County, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that compared to last year, there are 28,100 less acres planted.

The USDA said over half the state’s rice fields this year are unplanted. The majority of those fields are in the Sacramento valley, where much of the country’s sushi rice comes from. The California Rice Commission reports rice contributes over $5 billion to the state’s economy a year.

“We just do feel fortunate that we were able to plant as much of our ground as we were able to do,” Nelson said.

The Central Valley has lost over 90% of its natural wetlands due mainly to dams. Avian ecologist Kristin Sesser said rice fields have become important food sources for millions of migratory birds.

“Rice fields act like surrogate wetlands to some extent. Because they’re flooded in the summer and some in the winter. There is waste rice in those fields, there also quite a few invertebrates,” Sesser said.

There is the danger the drought could march on into a fourth year and why, Nelson says, they are constantly introducing new farming methods.

“Leveling the fields to provide water efficiency across an entire field to utilizing varieties of rice that are more water efficient.”

These techniques are crucial, Nelson said, to all who benefit from the harvest.

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