DOS PALOS, Calif. — Bagged rice may look like a mundane commodity, a bit incongruous at a local farmers market. But one taste of the variety grown by Koda Farms — with attractive, uniform kernels, alluring fragrance, soft texture and a rich, sweet flavor — makes clear that rice can be a delicacy well worth pursuing.
"Their brown rice is different from what is produced in Japan, but has its own unique, nutty flavor," said Sonoko Sakai, a locally based cooking teacher who frequently travels to Japan and represents traditional Japanese rice growers in the United States.
Coincidentally, Sakai's grandfather and Keisaburo Koda emigrated to the United States in 1908 on the same boat from the same village in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. After many ventures (wildcatting oil, canning tuna, laundries), Koda started growing rice in 1928 in Dos Palos, a small town 50 miles northwest of Fresno.
Koda lost much of his land when he and his family were interned during World War II but prospered again afterward. In the 1950s he hired a renowned rice breeder, Arthur Hughes Williams, to cross traditional Japanese short-grained rice, japonica, with a Middle Eastern strain, Assyrian. This created a medium-grain variety, Kokuho Rose, that delivers extraordinary quality under local conditions.
Koda's grandchildren, Ross, 49, and his sister Robin, 51, are just as passionate about rice and control every step from growing their own seed to farming and milling. Last year they grew 1,000 acres of rice, along with barley, garbanzos and black-eyed peas. They have stayed with Kokuho Rose even though it produces little more than half the yield of commercial varieties in the Sacramento Valley, where most of the state's 550,000 acres of rice are grown.
Dos Palos, with five rice farmers and 5,500 acres on flat, low-lying clay soil, is the southernmost rice district in the state. Rice is commonly sold at farmers markets in Northern California but was not available in the agricultural sections of Southern California farmers markets until now.
Robin, who has a master's degree in fine arts from the Art Institute of Chicago, lives on the farm with her and Ross' 89-year-old mother, Tama. Robin started selling at the Alemany farmers market in 2007.
"A lot of people think that rice is just rice, and the only way we can get them to appreciate the difference is to educate them," she said, as she offered a sample on a recent visit to the farm's office. "For example, to my taste, our rice is a little sweeter and more fragrant than what is grown in Japan. The bouquet is more floral."
Kokuho Rose rice works well for sushi, paella and risotto, she says. White rice stores well for a long time, but for her favorite, brown rice, fresh milling is a big advantage because the kernels have small amounts of oil that can turn rancid once the bran is stripped off. Koda's brown rice sold at farmers markets is typically milled within a few weeks before sale, and ideally should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer, she adds. Rice freshly harvested in September and October is particularly prized by connoisseurs.
Last year the Kodas' in-laws, Misa and Shinichiro Okano, who live in San Pedro, established Inaho Inc. to boost distribution of the farm's organic rice to Southland markets such as Marukai, Mitsuwa and Nijiya.
Three weeks ago they started selling brown and white rice at the Saturday and Tuesday Torrance farmers markets, where the rice has proved especially popular with the large Asian clientele, said manager Joyce Chan. Starting April 23, Robin herself will be selling once a month at the Santa Monica Wednesday farmers market.
Ross, who directs farming practices, has degrees in economics from Stanford and in business from UC Davis. He is quiet and serious, but his eyes gleam when he talks about rice quality and his family's heritage.
On a recent visit tractors tilled the fields in preparation for planting later this month, in which the rice seed is sown into flooded paddies by airplane. However, the Kodas were extremely worried about looming cutbacks to their water supply, which mostly comes from the Central California Irrigation District. They have been told that they are facing a preliminary allocation that is 40% of normal, but it could be even worse, due to the ongoing drought.
"This is increasingly harrowing, as our planting window is fast approaching," said Ross. "We're planning to plant 40% of our normal acreage, but if we don't get the water, we may have to abandon some fields."
Long Beach manager to retire
Veteran Long Beach farmers market manager Dale Whitney announced recently that he will be retiring at the end of this year, after a quarter century of service. Following the recent death of Torrance manager Mary-Lou Weiss, this move represents a significant generational changing of the guard for farmers market management in southern Los Angeles County.
Whitney was born in Nebraska in 1942 and his parents, a physician and a schoolteacher, moved to Los Angeles when he was less than 1 year old. In 1955 they went to Santa Barbara "to get out of the smog," he said. He graduated from Pomona College with a degree in zoology. He became interested in psychology, and then in the ministry, graduating from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1970. From 1971 to 1989, he was pastor of the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Long Beach.
Whitney was active on his church's political action committee, and on the South Coast Interfaith Council, a nonprofit organization that sponsored the first Long Beach farmers market, which was launched in July 1980. He was on the site selection committee for this event, which continues to be held, in a different location, Fridays downtown.
As he recalls, after he'd been a pastor for 17 years, "Things were getting stale, and I decided to look for another job." In April 1989 he was hired to manage the Long Beach farmers markets, three at the time.
The group's largest market is now the Sunday Marina event, which began in 1997. The organization now runs three farmers markets in Long Beach and three in nearby communities (Cerritos, South Gate and Huntington Park), and is known as Harbor Area Farmers Markets.
The market group's advisory committee — 12 church, community, farmer and food vendor members — has established a subcommittee to search for a successor.
Whitney lives in East Long Beach, in a Craftsman bungalow built in 1918, along with roommates and his cat, Buster. He will stay available to consult for his successor for a while after his retirement, but then hopes to travel the world — "anywhere they speak English or Castilian Spanish," he said.
Known in the farmers market world for his cheerfulness, sincerity and whimsical humor, Whitney will leave big shoes to fill. Asked if there was any connection between his being a minister and a farmers market manager, he replied, "an ability to work with people."