Rice grower has family tradition ingrained

Sep 25, 2012

If there’s anything American ingenuity has proved, it’s that necessity has always been the mother of invention. But in the case of one thriving family business, the need to succeed has also spawned the fathers, sons, and daughters of innovation, establishing this California company as one of the nation’s foremost pioneers of sustainable agriculture.

A leading producer of rice and rice products, Lundberg Family Farms was born out of the Dust Bowl during the 1930s, when horrific drought conditions in the country’s midsection saw to the destruction of millions of acres of crops and the families that farmed them. Sinister dust storms, better known as black blizzards, became commonplace, stripping the landscape of precious topsoil.

In 1937 there were a record 134 such storms, and that was too much for Nebraska farmers Albert and Frances Lundberg, who packed up their four young sons that year and headed for greener pastures. They weren’t alone. The Plains states lost some 2.5 million people during the 1930s, about 25 percent of the area’s population at the time.

The Lundbergs—with sons Eldon, Wendell, Harlan, and Homer in tow—found some land in Northern California. And though there was plenty of water courtesy of the Feather River, which cascades down from the Sierra Nevada, they quickly learned that the corn and other Midwestern staples they’d grown in Nebraska wouldn’t take to the hard-packed clay fields of the Sacramento Valley.

“In this adobe soil, if we got heavy rains, it would just stand there saturated, and those crops would drown out or develop a root rot,” Albert Lundberg’s youngest son, Homer, now 77, remembers. “But as it was awful soil for almost every other crop, it was adapted just perfectly for rice, because rice is an aquatic and it wants to stand in water.”

So rice it was for the Lundbergs, and the family immersed itself in learning all it could about the product and, just as importantly, about the ground in which it was grown. Homer said his father had told him and his brothers to never take the soil for granted.

“Dad’s operation was really affected because of his experience with the Dust Bowl,” he recalls. “In those days they didn’t understand rotation or cover crops or anything like that, and that was fine if they got a nice year every year. But then they got a series of really dry years, and soil dried up to the point where every wind that came along just caused a terrible dust storm. So when Dad got out here, his idea was, ‘I want to leave this ground better than I found it.’”

That novel preserve-the-land thinking resulted in the implementation of a slew of new sustainable practices. At the time, farmers would light a match to the straw and stubble left behind after a field was harvested, creating giant clouds of smoke that dirtied the otherwise pristine valley air. Papa Lundberg decided to plow that organic matter back into the hard ground, a painstaking process in the unyielding clay.

“It was really, really hard work,” said Homer Lundberg. “But you know, our soil became better as the years went by, and it became easier and easier, as the equipment improved. Most farmers didn’t adopt it because they thought it was too costly.” Over the years, other farmers in the valley experimented with this process and found great results, which led to the banning of the practice.

The Lundbergs also advanced the use of cover crops over their rice fields, rotating enriching plants like vetches, legumes, and clovers, which all contributed to soil quality and better production. The family’s firm commitment to the land and the environment had thrown them, rather unwittingly, into the early beginnings of the country’s organic foods production, an industry with sales of $31.5 billion in 2011. “I like to quip that Dad was in ecological farming before ecological farming was considered cool,” Homer said with a smile. “And he really was.”

Aside from changing the way rice was farmed, the family changed the way it came to market. Like most farms in the area, the Lundberg’s was part of a farming cooperative, and for about 25 years they brought their grown rice to the same grain elevators as other rice producers, and it was all mixed together before it was milled and sold. In the 1960s, Homer and his brothers broke away from the co-op so they could mill and market their purely produced rice themselves, ensuring that those who bought the Lundberg product would know where it came from and exactly how it was grown and harvested.

Homer’s nephew Grant Lundberg, the company’s current CEO and part of the third generation of the farming family, said the break from the co-op was truly revolutionary, calling it a “huge shift for agriculture.” It was also a costly gamble for the family business, which now had to invest in its own bins and drying systems, as well as in its own mill and packaging. “We just kind of put everything on the line and borrowed against our farming operation,” Homer Lundberg said. “It was a big step, but we were assured that there were people out there who wanted rice produced that way, and that turned out to be so.”

As the demand for organic foods rose, the Lundbergs decided that no one should know more about rice, from farm to table, than they did. While the area’s other rice farmers produced just three varieties, the family began experimenting with dozens more. Homer’s brother Harlan, who died last year, was the catalyst for expanding the product line. “He took it on himself to think outside the box, and with a little arm twisting, he got us to go along with him,” Homer recalls, “and that was one of the best decisions we ever made.”

Today, Lundberg Family Farms offers over 150 products and 17 different varieties of organic and eco-farmed rice—from the more exotic Wehani, Black Japonica, and Arborio to organic whole-grain brown, its most popular—all raised in the Lundberg nursery and cultivated on 16,000 acres using the most sustainable practices in agriculture. Even the farm’s rice dryer and warehouse are powered by more than 380 kilowatts’ worth of solar panel arrays.

Besides pushing the Lundbergs to California, the Dust Bowl also blew a new era of land preservation and farming techniques across the country. A new federal agency, now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, was formed to solve land erosion. The agency continues to provide financial incentives to turn fields not suited for farming crops into forests or pastures.

As a result, today’s farmers have adopted methods to protect fields from wind erosion. Among the most effective is stubble mulching, a technique pioneered by the Lundbergs. And though droughts—like this summer’s, which scorched 17 states—still cause extensive damage to crops, advances in irrigation and soil management help to prevent a Dust Bowl sequel. That’s important for the world’s food supply, since the agricultural exports of American farmers exceeded $137 billion last year, accounting for a $42 billion farm trade surplus.

The Lundbergs have received multiple industry honors for their agricultural innovations and use of clean technology. The farm garnered the 2011 Sustainability Award from the Nutrition Business Journal.

And as much as the family’s stewardship of the environment has steered its operations, the business’ main engine continues to be importance of family. Seventy-five years after his great grandparents put down roots in Richvale, 23-year-old Anders Lundberg, the first of the fourth generation to work the farm, joined the company after completing his studies at Cal Poly.

“We think that the family ownership and the family values are one of the instrumental drivers in creating value for the brand, the Lundberg Family Farms, because people really make that connection,” Grant Lundberg said. “That idea of family working together, understanding that if we work together and head in the same direction we can create a value for ourselves and for consumers. It’s part of our tradition.”

This article originally appeared on The Atlantic Online as part of the Investing In A Better Tomorrow program.

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