Suzie Dawley

Environmental Health Specialist at Colusa County Dept of Health and Human Services and wife of a rice farmer


Alison M. Jones

NWNL Executive Director

Colusa, California, Sacramento River Basin - March 19, 2014



All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.

Introductory Note

“You can’t do anything with land unless you have the water to go with it.” 
 – Henry Miller, “Cattle King of California” (b. 1827, d. 1916)

Field off Tule Road in Arbuckle, CA

When I introduced myself and NWNL to Suzie Dawley at the Colusa County Farm Bureau, she kindly gave me brochures and promotion materials; but did not have time for the normal NWNL type of interviews that are taped for transcription. Thus, the following is a compilation of handout excerpts and contemporaneous notes of our brief conversation during our NWNL visit to the Farm Bereau. 

Suzie Dawley’s son is a 5th generation farmer – and 4th generation on the same ground. He is proud of that legacy. Farmers look back with pride at their history and family commitment to owning land that they will pass on to their grandchildren.

LOCAL QUOTES / Promotion materials promoting the sustainability of rice farming
Eat Rice:  Potatoes make your Butt Big” (bumper sticker)
Been There – Cut That”  (John Deere promotion)

A well-used John Deere tractor in Northern California's Central Valley


ACROSS CALIFORNIA  California farmers grow food for the world, not just for local consumption. But in this year’s drought, many farmers are planning to plant more vegetables in their own backyards. California’s Farm Bureau should be a united voice; but in today’s drought, critical water needs have created a conflict between Northern and Southern California.

Woodland CA sign for Growers Association of California. Rt 113

Yet, despite their differences, there are still many concerns common to all California farmers: 
Lower Income for farmers, since no matter the impact on their profits, farmers still have to pay workers compensation and equipment insurance
Unemployment for farm workers: “There is no system to help them as of now, despite that they are skilled laborers (i.e., harvesters, warehouse workers, truck drivers)
Grocery stores and restaurants may have to close due to lack of produce
Schools will be too empty to stay open if farm workers are let go and have to leave
Support services will be stressed, such as migrant camps owned by the State

Local mural highlighting immigrant workers, crops and water

IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA’S COLUSA COUNTY Farmers faced this year’s drought realities early in the year when Sacramento River water levels before the early March storms were the lowest ever seen. Now, in late March, these farmers don’t know how much water is in the ground. Their wells are old ( 5 years and more), and sometimes they don’t use these wells for years at a time. As a result, property owners don’t know how long they’ll last.

Irrigation & water supply infrastructure has improved, but construction delays have occurred for years. Ironically droughts create more business for well drillers and irrigation companies. Fortunately, they are now using new cutting-edge, laser technology that doubles crop harvests using just same amount of water that has been used for the past 20 years. Yet, unfortunately, new wells face a 6-month backlog now and Glenn County has a drilling moratorium.

Colusa farmers planning to plant a field of tomatoes

In the last week of March, the local Credit Union sponsored a meeting for farmers. During planting time for tomatoes, those farmers didn’t know how much water they’d have. But they certainly had many questions:

    • Will farmers have 25% or 40% of their normal water allotment, as promised – or NONE?
    • For farmers who are diversified: Can they transfer water allocations for rice acreage to almond or walnut orchard acreage, since nut orchards are permanent crops? However, almond trees need to be ordered 3-5 years in advance of delivery. Thus, almond trees already ordered will be planted and produced in the next few years, perhaps creating a glut in the market and thus lower prices.
    • For farmers who are not diversified: Should they buy or sell their water, knowing that in doing so they’d have to give up crop insurance?
    • If fewer farmers grow rice, then rice prices would rise. But then, what are consequences to those countries that depend on rice as their staple?
Laying irrigation pipes on Butte Slough Rd, Colusa CA


— Almond orchards are planted further away from water-y areas, mostly in the foothills because they need more gravel and drainage
— Most nuts go to China. They are at their highest price ever now. 
— Blue Diamond Almonds is doing a good job of marketing almonds for protein, for their being able to be honey-, coconut- or BBQ-flavored; wasabi-coated; and having unique flavorings, that avoid having the bitter taste of walnuts.

— They are used for oil and by those who are health-conscious or on heart-healthy diets. 
— Prices for walnuts are also up now, like almonds.

Walnut tree on Fruchtenicht Rd, Arbuckle, CA

— Its advantage is that it can easily be stored, and then used as a political commodity.
— Its farming includes working the ground; fertilizing; watering; seeding from overhead and flooding after planting.
— Rice plantations are near the hills so the ground is 75% clay, which doesn’t absorb water. Historically, this land isn’t used for other crops since they won’t grow in clay.
— Much harvested rice is exported. Those prices won’t go up, since unlike in the US, rice is a staple elsewhere. 
— Computerized laser beams directed from a central post now level fields by determining heights of tractor buckets. Thus, by ensuring a very small differential between one side and another (by maybe just 1 inch), there’s better weed control and better flood control.
— Screw-gates open below-ground doors and released flooded water flows underneath.
— Rice heads appear late July/Aug. When the rice is 3-4’ tall, the field is drained of water. The rice is then harvested when dry. After the rice goes to the warehouse for milling, it is pooled, and the farmers get an advance for each sack. Final payment comes 1 year later.
— Burning to dispose of remaining rice plants “straw” stopped 10 years ago. Now remaining straw is first flooded and then stirred under the earth.

Rice field and irrigation ditch in Colusa County

Lettuce  If lettuce prices rise significantly with drought, US buyers will likely turn to foreign lettuce suppliers, such Mexico where pesticides and herbicides are not well regulated.

Tomatoes  It’s planting time now [March] both for tomatoes to eat and for tomatoes to be processed (as canned tomatoes, ketchup, etc.). In drought, tomatoes, like peaches which are also grown here, are a high-risk crop, since farmers contract ahead with processors for guaranteed delivery times of a certain number of tons on a guaranteed date.

Vegetables Grown for Seeds  This less-recognized product includes planting seeds for watermelon, zucchini and other produce.

Sign for a seed warehouse on Colusa Highway Route 20

Alfalfa  This crop is more water intensive than rice, as its fields are also flooded. 

Cattle  Livestock farming requires rain, land and food. Usually, cattle graze in the hills during winter, then come down here for alfalfa after that. But now there’s not enough for them to feed on, so ranchers are selling them off. 

Cattle on Sherman Island, north shore of California Delta

Other Species are supported by rice and its huge economy, including fox, otter, deer, and duck. Their numbers, appreciated by hunters, also suffer in drought.


You can’t get a better environmentalist or steward of the land, than a farmer. Yet this drought is unprecedented – uncharted. There are no rules or guidelines set up for this. Farmers are now dependent on wells.  They don’t know whether to water only 25% of all their trees, or to water all their trees only 25% of normal amounts.  If they do the latter, they will take a hit on quality.

Now, farmers are planting tomatoes at this point; but they are NOT taking crop insurance, despite general opinion.  Their hedge is to sell water they are allotted and thus make more than crop insurance would yield.  Thus, water becomes a commodity.

In Northern California’s Shasta Dam, stored water is allocated so that one half is for agriculture, one quarter for municipal water, and one quarter for fish.

San Luis Reservoir in Los Banos in southern California

In the face of this drought, many farmers are begging for more water-storage dams, explaining “If we had more storage, we could capture more rain, like Southern CA did with the San Luis Reservoir.” The Sites Reservoir is being advocated and proposed for the Sacramento Valley (in Maxwell, northwest of Colusa town, in Colusa County). However, it would take 8 – 10 years to be built and filled.  Thus, farmers say, “We should start now, because it’s dry and that’s the best time to build a reservoir.”   

YOLO ByPass offers a good solution to competing needs. It allows rice farmers to flood their fields and also support salmon in those same fields in winter. “That’s how we as farmers appeal to the environmentalists.”

A flooded rice field on Sutter’s West Butte Road

Posted by NWNL on June 5, 2021
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.

All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.