Charlie Mathews

Rice Growing and the Environment

Recorded: October 21, 2013

Charlie Mathews, Jr. is a rice farmer in California's Central Valley. Charlie wants people to understand that rice growing provides a rich habitat for birds along the Pacific flyway. Charlie is active in his community and believes that if farmers spent more time being active in their communities, everyone would benefit, including the environment.

Charles (Charlie) Mathews grew up fishing and hunting with his extensive family in rural Marysville, California.  He continued his father’s legacy as a rice farmer after college, sharecropping small acreages for his first eight years.  Charlie took a leadership role in changing people’s minds about growing rice in California.  He convinced Marc Reisner, who wrote the enormously influential book, Cadillac Desert, that rice was not the water waster and polluter that pasture and cotton are, and is helpful to wildlife.  Today, farming is still a family business. Charlie and his wife, Sheila, live in the middle of their rice fields, and his two daughters and two sons all farm rice in the area.  The Mathews Company has designed a unique system for spawning salmon and other fish to get by the Daguerre Point Dam on the Yuba River. He has also developed an energy efficient rice dryer, which has become a best practice in the industry.

Huey Johnson:    Charlie Mathews, welcome, thank you for joining us.  You are – we are speaking in near the town of Marysville, which is the huge rice growing area in California and you are prominent in that business and leadership in the community.  You and I are hunters, and there’s some wildlife involved with rice fields, can you reflect on that?

Charlie Mathews :    Yes, in the days before the gold rush there were just native people in the California, well now we have 38 million people in California and we’ve taken most of the wetlands out.  But because we don’t burn the rice fields anymore, it takes water to help break down the straw, so now we flood about 250,000 acres of rice fields in the wintertime and, this has become a major component of the Pacific Flyway for not only ducks and geese and swan, but all of the myriad of other shore birds that need a marine environment.

Huey Johnson:    A friend of yours and a friend yours and a friend of mine who’s a giant in environmental philosophy, was Mark Reisner who wrote Cadillac Desert about the fact that California was a desert and the water that’s saved in the Sierra’s is the only way our society has boomed as it has, trickled out in summer.  And California views rice, many people, as a possible unfair use of water, can you reflect on that?

Charlie Mathews :    Well first, the use of the water, you look at a walnut orchard and it’s a large tree and it has leaves on it for 8 or 9 months out of the year.  It will use approximately 5 to 6 feet of water in a year where a rice plant is only growing for 120 days, and we grow it on land where the water doesn’t penetrate and it only uses about 3.8 acre feet.  So when you look at a beautiful walnut orchard, the rice is using substantially less water.  When I first met Mark Reisner, in his first edition he said “Rice, pasture and cotton were the three biggest users of water that didn’t need to be done in a Mediterranean environment.”  We took him around our rice field, took him where we diverted water out of the river,  and in the second edition he took the rice out of the edition, and became a spokesman for the advantages of winter flooding rice for the wetlands.

Huey Johnson:    The evolution of agriculture and your involvement as a public leader, are a point of interest and it would be useful to know or get your reflections on where we are and what the hopes are to getting rid of blocks, conflicts, issues that we need to solve in order to maintain the food production of the country, for instance.

Charlie Mathews :    I would reflect, though I’ve – that you need to get the farmer off the farm to get involved in the community.  And when he gets involved in the community, he will automatically have to work with the different forces, both government, environmental, EPA.  And when he gets involved with them – he or she gets involved with them – they will have a better understanding both of them and they will have a better understanding of the farmer’s.  And I think its extremely vital to continue to encourage the farming community to get off of their tractor and out to meet the community, because that’s our life blood and it also gives you enough courage and understanding, and possibly wisdom, to be successful.