By Hank Shaw

Photographs by Max Whittaker

Call it farm-to-chopstick. Not only does nearly every bite of sushi rice in the United States come from California, but almost all of it—97 percent, to be exact—comes from the Sacramento Valley. And when it comes to ultra-premium Japanese-style rice (yep, there’s a difference), Yuba City’s Montna Farms is the American gold standard. Just ask chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who uses Montna-grown rice in his celebrated restaurants from L.A. to New York. Here’s the story of the tiny grain that’s making it big.

 

The plane tipped its wings as it turned to land in Sacramento, revealingT the khaki-and-emerald patchwork of Central Valley farmland. Another moment, and the setting sun hit the land just right: There it was, the shimmer of water. Everywhere, just under the emerald sheet, a glimpse of a hidden inland sea.

Rice country in spring and summer.

Fly in from Seattle or Portland and that landing path will take you right over Montna Farms, located in an area memorably named Dingville, just 28 miles north of California’s state capital, in Yuba City. The Montna family has been growing rice there for nearly a century, and, over the past 23 years, has quietly become one of a handful of American rice growers skilled enough to produce Japanese rice used by some of the world’s best sushi chefs and eateries, including the renowned restaurant group Nobu.

Almost 2,500 farmers grow rice in California, and the half-million acres they farm are nearly the size of four Lake Tahoes put together. All told, it’s a $5 billion industry—no wonder that the single biggest export from the Port of West Sacramento is rice headed for Asia.

Montna cultivates 5,000 acres of rice near Yuba City. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

More people depend on rice than any other staple grain. But rice is far more than a side dish, more than something to bulk up the more interesting things on the plate. In many places, it is an expression of identity: If you are Japanese, Japanese rice is your birthright. The same holds true for jasmine rice in Thailand, or bomba rice in Spain. And truly great rice, of whatever variety, made outside of its home country, is a rare thing indeed. But it’s happening here in California, in our backyard.

Rice. In California. Seriously. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone tell me that growing rice in a semi-desert was crazy, I could eat at The French Laundry. Yes, at first blush it does sound crazy. Rice is a tropical plant, right? It grows in places with monsoons and needs tons of water, yes?

The Montnas have grown accustomed to answering these questions, questions that came fast and furious during California’s recent drought, which forced them to fallow about 40 percent of their ground. But that wasn’t the first drought they had weathered, and last winter wasn’t their first flood season, either.

•••••••

Pierre Montané arrived in San Francisco from his native southwestern France in the 1880s, and soon became a ranch hand for fellow Frenchman Paul Masson in Los Gatos, according to Montané’s grandson Al Montna. Masson’s winery, if you’re old enough to remember, was the one that hired Orson Welles to star in a series of memorable TV commercials back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Al says Montané, who changed his name to Peri Montna to sound more American, may have planted the first vineyard in Sutter County.

A few years later, Peri Montna moved to Yuba City, where he died in 1937. Al’s father, Alfred “Dutch” Montna, bought the first piece of the family’s current farm in the 1930s. It is Dutch who first started growing rice.

Rice was first successfully planted just up the road from the Montna ranch in Biggs back in 1908, and by 1920 about 162,000 acres were in production in the Sacramento Valley. Rice, however, wasn’t the main focus of the Montnas’ operation at the time (in contrast, they now have about 5,000 acres in rice). The family also ran a general store, cafe and gas station at the ranch, which they dubbed Dingville. The town got its name, says Al, from the hobos of the Depression. Nicknamed “dings,” they lived in a makeshift camp nearby and came over looking for work.

Over time, rice grew to be enough of their annual crop—the family also grew peaches, grapes, apricots and plums—for Dutch to build a top-of-the-line rice dryer in 1950. As fate would have it, this dryer, now an antique, is one of the secrets to the quality of the family’s Japanese-style rice.

Dutch wouldn’t live long enough to see this modern success. The great Christmas Flood of 1955 destroyed most of the farm, and he died of a heart attack three months later at age 48.

The Montna family has quietly become one of a handful of American rice growers skilled enough to produce Japanese rice used by some of the world’s best sushi chefs and eateries, including the renowned restaurant group Nobu.

In the aftermath, Al’s mother Emma leased the ground to a man named Cobb Saunders, who taught Al how to farm rice once he returned from Cal Poly in 1966.

“I asked him to lease me some ground to farm,” Al recalls, “He gave me the worst field he had, but I expected that.” He said Saunders assumed Al would be a college-boy dilettante, but his dedication to farming was real. The two became fast friends. “He went way out of his way to mentor me,” Al says.

As the years went on, the Montnas shifted more and more over to rice. Part of the reason was that most members of the family are avid duck hunters. The connection has to do with water.

Before the Sacramento Valley largely fell under the plow in the 1800s, it was one of the largest seasonal marshlands in the world, home to millions of wintering ducks, geese and other waterbirds.

The fourth-generation Montna Farms started with Peri Montna (pictured at left with his wife Marie) and his son Dutch (pictured with his wife Emma). (Photos courtesy of the Montna family)

For decades, most rice farmers would simply burn off the rice stubble after the fall harvest. But that leaves little in the way of habitat for migrating birds, and, given the winter inversion layers that can blanket the valley, can choke the air with a smoky haze for weeks. Al, being a duck hunter, was one of the pioneers of a new way to get rid of the stubble: reflood the fields. This rots the stubble, and has the added benefit of becoming a perfect habitat for waterfowl, which also eat any stray grains of rice.

In addition, Al put a large portion of his Dingville ranch into permanent conservation easements, so that the land will never be developed. For all this he won the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award from the Wisconsin-based Sand County Foundation in 2010. He now serves on the national board of Ducks Unlimited, an organization dedicated to preserving, maintaining and expanding wetlands all over North America.

I am a duck hunter, and the sight of Montna’s flooded fields along Highway 99 has almost caused me to run off the road several times. In winter, they are choked with ducks, geese, swans and comical, bobbing black coots. Thousands of rice-eating pintails loaf just yards from the highway. And, as any waterfowler knows, a rice-eating pintail is the finest eating duck in America, bar none.

•••••••

Ironically, unless you like sushi, there’s a good chance you’ve never eaten Montna’s rice, or other California rices.

Virtually all of the state’s rice crop is medium-grain Japanese-style rice, a variety not particularly popular in the U.S. Long-grain rice, mostly grown in Arkansas, Louisiana and elsewhere in the South, occupies three-quarters of the American market share. Sure, if you’ve drunk a Budweiser in the last few decades, you’ve had some California rice—it’s been a big part of the Bud recipe for over 30 years—but if you don’t like Japanese food, you could be forgiven for not knowing much about it.

And this brings us to the rice itself. For starters, Montna’s specialty isn’t even the more common medium-grain California rice, it is a “super premium” Japanese short-grain rice sold under the brand Tamanishiki by the JFC Corporation, which is part of the larger Kikkoman Corporation. You can buy it locally at Oto’s Marketplace on Freeport Boulevard, or online at Amazon.

Tamanishiki is a secret blend of hard-to-grow varieties called koshihikari and yume gokochi. Nicole Montna Van Vleck, Al’s eldest daughter and Montna Farms’ CEO, says she can’t reveal the ratios, “or we’d have to kill you.” (Van Vleck owns the family business with her father, her mother Gail and her sister Michelle Montna Vogt, who oversees the ranch’s youth training programs.) Both rices are farmed in Dingville, and are cultivated, dried and milled separately from any other varieties Montna grows elsewhere, so there is no “contamination” of lesser quality rices.

If your head is spinning with so many names of rice, so was mine. But here’s how it breaks down.

Almost all rice grown in the world is Oryza sativa; there is one other species grown in West Africa. (Wild rice, incidentally, isn’t rice. It’s another aquatic grass with tasty seeds.) You can split Oryza sativa into two main subspecies: japonica and indica.

Indica is that monsoon rice you’re thinking of: It needs hot, humid, wet conditions like in Vietnam or Louisiana. Japonica, on the other hand, is better suited to drier, slightly less hot climates and ripens with the shortening daylight in northern latitudes—there are even a few successful rice farmers in Vermont, of all places. It is, as you might imagine, grown in Japan. It snows in Japan. They have droughts in Japan. It’s not so different from here. Japonica is the primary type of rice grown in California.

Al Montna (far left) and his wife Gail at Nobu Fifty Seven in New York in June (Photo courtesy of the Montna family)

But what about the water needed to cultivate the crop? Well, a quirk of geology answers that question. The soil north of Sacramento is, in many places, made up of horrifically thick clay—clay so impermeable that to grow anything else, you must tear it to shreds using an ominous-sounding farming tool called a “ripper.” Skip this step and even the strongest roots will be turned back by the clay.

This clay makes such ground perfect for growing rice. Add water, and the water stays there, to the point where, in California, rice takes no more water to grow, serving for serving, than oranges or broccoli. There is enough of this clay soil to support the second largest rice crop in the United States, half a million acres strong. It is the only significant grain crop grown in California, a land best known for fruits and nuts.

Now, mostly but not always, indica rices are long-grained while japonica is medium- or short-grained. Long-grain rice is at least three times as long as it is wide, medium twice as long, and short grain, which is what Montna grows, is less than twice as long as it is wide. Tamanishiki rice grains look rather like opalescent bits of quartz, tossed by a river.

But don’t get all hung up on long versus short grains, says author Naomi Duguid, whose Seductions of Rice is a commanding book on the worldwide culture of the titular crop.

“Short and long grain, you can’t generalize. It’s about the amylose, it’s about the texture,” Duguid says.

Amylose is a polysaccharide, one of the two components of the starch in a rice grain. Strip away the science and the differences in rice have more to do with how much water they can absorb and how much of a beating they can take without turning into mush. Grain length is a marker for this, but an imperfect one.

Basmati rice, for instance, has high levels of amylose, so it cooks up distinct and fluffy, with kernels that are separated. Jasmine, however, is more or less as long as basmati, but has less amylose, so it will stick to itself.

Nicole Montna Van Vleck, CEO of Montna Farms (left), with her sister Michelle Montna Vogt, who runs the ranch’s youth training programs (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Japanese rice, which is always medium- or short-grain, is also low in amylose. It is ready to eat long before it absorbs too much water, and is relatively fragile. Put a grain of Montna’s rice next to, say, a grain of Spanish bomba rice, which is that country’s finest variety, and they look rather similar in shape. But the bomba rice will absorb almost four times its weight in water, whereas the Tamanishiki will only absorb about its own weight.

This is why you’d be crazy to use Montna’s rice to make paella or risotto. The whole point of the rice in those dishes is to absorb lots of flavorful broth, and in the case of risotto, to slough off starch under constant stirring to create a creamy consistency. Do that with Japanese rice and it will dissolve.

Montna’s Tamanishiki must be cooked in the Japanese way to be fully appreciated. That is to say washed—something few American home cooks do—drained, and boiled in just a bit more water than there is rice. It is not salted.

“When you’re talking about Japanese rices you’re normally eating it plain,” Duguid says. “So you notice the flavor. And it’s subtle.”

It is. I cooked several bowls for this article. Washing the rice reveals that opalescent sheen. Washed, the grains look even more like jewels, making you understand why, in Japanese folklore, each grain of rice is said to contain 88 souls—so to waste one is a sin.

While it’s cooking, Tamanishiki smells vaguely like roasting walnuts or pecans, and when it emerges from the pot, each grain is distinct, pearly, yet linked to its neighbors. Not so much a clump as a community. Eating this rice makes you slow down, and doing so lets you discover the slight sweetness in it, even though you’ve added nothing, not even a pinch of salt.

It is this perfection that has brought the great Japanese chefs to Montna’s door. Famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa has called Tamanishiki his favorite rice on The Martha Stewart Show, and he serves the family’s rice at all of his eateries outside Japan. Another high-profile client is the restaurant group SushiSamba, which has locations in New York, Las Vegas, Miami and London.

Washing the Tamanishiki rice reveals an opalescent sheen. The grains look like jewels, making you understand why, in Japanese folklore, each grain of rice is said to contain 88 souls—so to waste one is a sin.

“The consistency [of quality] is phenomenal,” says John Um, a regional corporate sushi chef at SushiSamba. His restaurant in Las Vegas serves up to 1,000 people a day, and he visited Montna Farms last year looking for a rice that met the standards of the Japanese-grown variety, but was also consistently obtainable stateside. Now he uses Tamanishiki exclusively for rice preparations at SushiSamba’s Vegas and Miami restaurants.

Locally, chefs such as Oliver Ridgeway of Grange, Michael Fagnoni and Molly Hawks of Hawks, Ed Roehr of Magpie and Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan have sung the praises of Tamanishiki.

Mulvaney used the rice for a special dinner he hosted a few years ago at the James Beard House in New York and at the Leland Stanford Mansion for a 2014 luncheon honoring Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. 

“Good food locally sourced is what we strive for, so using it is a perfect fit. The unique flavors and textures are what make the premium grains worthwhile. Tamanishiki has great bite, reminiscent of the pop of barley,” Mulvaney says. “The quality of rice from Sacramento is smoking with an international reputation. In addition to the flavor profile, I appreciate the stories about Sacramento the rice helps to tell. My friend Steve Ramirez tells the story of being in Hong Kong and his hosts asking where he was from. He was surprised when the response to Sacramento was, ‘Oh, you have very good rice there.’ ”

A crop of rice gets loaded onto a truck at Montna Farms. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Celebrated cookbook author Nancy Singleton Hachisu lives on a farm in Japan with her Japanese husband. She specializes in Japanese food, and was fêted at a dinner in 2013 at Mulvaney’s celebrating the release of her book Japanese Farm Food.

Hachisu and her husband grow their own rice for their family’s consumption. But sometimes they need to buy more.

“Recently we ran out of rice and I had to buy new rice from a friend in Niigata,” Hachisu wrote me. “I buy two varieties: koshihikari and sasanishiki. The koshihikari is naturally shinier and bright and the sasanishiki has a gentler depth of taste.” When prepared properly, “the koshihikari rice gives me a ‘pow’ when I put it in my mouth. Now that is really amazing rice.” Montna’s rice is largely koshihikari, one of the two heirloom Japanese varieties in their Tamanishiki.

•••••••

Getting to this level of perfection requires enormous care, Van Vleck says.

The Montnas began growing short-grain rice back in 1994, just to try it out. Most of California’s rice is a variety called Calrose, and it’s a decent medium-grained rice available in most supermarkets. Short-grain was another world.

“It’s very difficult to raise,” Al Montna says. “You have to live with it, virtually. It is very temperamental.”

Most rice in California is seeded by air in flooded fields. Those fields need to be as level as possible—this helps both harvesting and, more importantly, saves water. Rice farmers used to use lasers to level their fields, but most of them, including the Montnas, now use GPS leveling, which is an even more advanced field-leveling technique than laser leveling. Van Vleck says doing it this way allows them to use about 20 percent less water. Once the fields are flooded, crop dusters fly low over the fields and spray seeds out behind them.

The fields stay flooded with shallow water to keep weeds down. They are also perfect for nesting waterbirds. I saw several pairs of cinnamon teal ducks paddling along the green rice fields on a recent tour of the Montna ranch. About 100 days later, the fields are drained, the soil firms up over the next month, and then the rice is harvested by combine.

A rice field during planting season in May 2016 at the Montna family’s Dingville ranch (Photo by Jim Morris/California Rice Commission)

Bill Warnock, who oversees the day-to-day farming and drying operations at Montna Farms, says that Tamanishiki rice yields only about two-thirds what Calrose would yield, and, interestingly, it requires only about one-third the fertilizer.

From a farming perspective, this is a boon because you need to spend less money on fertilizer. From a conservation perspective, this is a boon because you put less fertilizers into the environment, which helps your water quality. But although Tamanishiki uses less fertilizer, it needs to be used at the right time, Warnock says.

Use too little, and you get even smaller yields. Use too much and the plants, which are already taller than Calrose plants, grow even taller, fall down, and are almost impossible to harvest. Great for the ducks in the winter, but bad for Montna’s bottom line.

And if you almost get it right, but not quite, the starch content of the rice gets a little too high and you lose that mystical sweetness that makes Tamanishiki so special.

Remember that old Montna dryer, the one Dutch Montna built in 1950? The machine—which moves the rice around and around instead of blasting it with heat on a long conveyor—dries the rice slowly. “It’s not high volume, but the quality is tremendous,” Al says.

Duguid notes that many small-scale Japanese farmers sun-dry their rice, which is the ideal. “So what you want is for your dryer to be as close to reproducing that as possible,” she says. Montna’s old dryer fits that bill.

“It’s just like rushing bread,” she says. “You lose flavor and you lose quality for sure.”

A crop duster sprays fertilizer on the rice fields at Montna Farms. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Adds Warnock, “It’s a small window to get it right. There are a lot of hoops we have to jump through.”

But it’s worth it, Van Vleck says. “We want to grow something that is more than a commodity.” Producing Tamanishiki really wasn’t a financial decision for the Montnas. They could make plenty of money just growing Calrose. Van Vleck says it’s more about the conservation aspects of growing a rice with a lower fertilizer requirement, and the satisfaction of knowing that they’ve become skilled enough to sell rice to one of the most discerning rice cultures on earth.

“It’s to differentiate ourselves,” she says. “We can do this better than most can. It’s not something you can monkey with one year at a time. For us to be great at it, we needed to do it each and every year.”

The question lingers, though. It’s rice. Just rice. Right?

“Rice tends to be, if you didn’t grow up in a rice culture, this thing that people don’t have much respect for,” says Duguid. “It’s that white thing on the side of the plate. And that’s too bad.”

Duguid says we’re all watching an evolution in perspective. It started with wine: We wanted to know if the red we were drinking was an Amador zin or if the white was a chenin blanc from Clarksburg. It moved to a desire among many consumers and chefs to eat animals that had been raised and slaughtered humanely, then broadened into a desire for well-grown, local fruits and vegetables. Now people are starting to think about their starches, such as rice. Expansion of specificity, food by food.

Duguid sees this as a positive sign. “That’s doing honor to the plant and doing honor to the farmer,” she says.

See for yourself. Pick up a packet of Montna’s rice. Wash it. Cook it the Japanese way. Eat it plain. You will find yourself staring at its mesmerizing pearlescence. Inhaling the warm aroma of bamboo and roasting walnuts. Tasting just a zephyr of sweet. And when you’ve scraped every last grain from your bowl, you will know. This is not just rice. This is a family’s legacy. S