Written by The Business Journal Staff
Tradition is very important to third-generation Merced County rice farmers Robin and Ross Koda, siblings who operate the southernmost rice farm in California.
On a couple thousand acres near South Dos Palos, Koda Farms produces Japanese and heirloom varieties of rice coveted by foodies, chefs and sushi lovers around the world.
“There’s so much good stuff, food-wise, coming out of the Valley,” said Robin Koda, who together with her brother manned a booth showcasing the company’s products at the 2016 Fresno Food Expo.
“This was our third time at the Fresno show,” Koda said. “It’s a great place to meet potential new distributors and retailers — and educate people what great rice is all about.”
The Kodas have been farming in California since family patriarch Keisaburo Koda immigrated from Japan in 1908. Today, Koda Farms is the Golden State’s oldest family-owned and operated rice farm and mill.
In the late 1920s, Keisaburo and his family moved to the San Joaquin Valley, buying a parcel near Dos Palos to start a new farming venture.
Keisaburo formed State Farming Co., Inc. with his American-born children as stockholders in order to comply with the Alien Land Law of 1913, which prevented “aliens ineligible to citizenship” the right to own land in California. The edict was part of a general anti-Asian fervor spreading along the West Coast at the time and Asian immigrants were the only racial group impacted by the Land Law.
Keisaburo, an innovator in the rice industry, helped pioneer rice-growing techniques such as sowing seed with airplanes and by the early 1940s, his integrated farming operation included a modern rice dryer and mill that allowed complete quality control from seed to store shelf.
Amongst the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans living in California at the time, Keisaburo became known as the “Rice King.”
Then, came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt that sent some 120,000 ethnic Japanese living along the West Coast to internment camps.
After receiving notification of their relocation to Camp Amache in Colorado, the Koda family planned to close their operation until they could return to California. But the U.S. government mandated their business be kept running to produce food and fiber for the war effort. So the family had to turn over management of their operations to non-Asians.
The Kodas wound up spending several years in Colorado and upon returning to California after the war ended, discovered their business and homes had been liquidated.
Keisaburo’s sons Edward and William spent the post-war years rebuilding the family business, in the process becoming the first farmers in the U.S. to grow sweet rice, called “Sho-Chiku-Bai,” — which roughly translates as Three Friends in Winter. The short-grain rice, known for its purity, quickly gained a reputation for its consistent quality and remains the company’s top-selling product today.
In the 1950s, a rice-breeding program was established at Koda Farms that resulted in another unique variety of premium medium grain rice Keisaburo named “Kokuho Rose.” That product, also a favorite among Japanese Americans, was recently called “probably the best” rice made in the U.S. by Mark Bittman of The New York Times.
Keisaburo, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1954, went on to establish the California Farming Trainees and the Japanese Farming Youth programs that brought Japanese trainees to the United States to study American agriculture.
Today, his grandchildren, Ross and Robin Koda, continue the family’s legacy, which has always focused on quality and integrity. Koda Farms grows both conventional and certified organic varieties of short and medium grain rice.
“Rice is trendy, like any other food stuff,” Robin Koda said. “In recent decades, there’s been a preference for short grain rice in the domestic Asian segment.”
This could be a boom year for Golden State rice growers. California’s seeded rice acreage is estimated at 564,000 acres, up 33 percent from last year, according to the latest survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Long grain rice, at 9,000 acres, was up 29 percent from 2015. Medium grain rice, at 510,000 acres, was up by 34 percent. And short grain rice, at 45,000 acres, was up by 25 percent.
Overall, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. rice growers are expecting to harvest 3.19 million acres of rice in 2016, 24 percent above last year’s total.
According to the Sacramento-based California Rice Commission, which represents the approximately 2,500 growers and handlers who farm and process rice in the state, California rice is one of the state’s largest crops and contributes more than $5 billion a year and 25,000 jobs to the state’s economy.
The rice crop is a major part of the economy for many communities throughout the Sacramento Valley, the hub of the state’s rice-growing operations.
“Over the years, rice has become extremely competitive,” Koda said, adding the boom in Golden State rice production will likely impact her company’s bottom line. “Other people will start dropping their prices,” she predicted.
But Koda said Koda Farms plans to maintain its focus on “quality over quantity.”
“We’re not interested in growing commodity grade rice,” she said. “We want to differentiate ourselves.”