WILLIAMS -- Dipping its left wing, a canary-yellow biplane makes a sharp turn and dives over a flooded field, showering rice on the shallow water 15 feet below.
It's aerial seeding season for rice farmers in California, which produces about 20 percent of the crop grown in the United States. With the price of rice surging internationally, much of the medium-grain rice being planted between the Sutter Butte mountains and California's Coastal Range has been sold, even though harvest still is months away.
"It's nuts," said Pat Daddow, head of the California Rice Exchange, a platform where processors bid on and buy rice. "We've sold an ungodly amount of rice. The price has nearly doubled -- and this is the crop they're just beginning to plant."
The greater demand and new foreign customers driving the global price hike have been a boon to American farmers, who are welcoming the reprieve after years of shouldering high fuel and fertilizer costs and weak prices for their grain.
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Commodity traders and economists attribute the global price increases to weather -- a drought in Australia, floods in Asia -- the declining value of the dollar, the jump in fuel costs and increased buying power in China and India, said Nathan Childs, an economist and rice expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The cyclone that ravaged Myanmar more than a week ago, killing tens of thousands and displacing many more, also devastated the impoverished country's rice-growing heartland. Myanmar had produced enough to feed itself and was expected to export as much as 600,000 tons of rice to neighbors including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh this year.
But one of the main factors pushing up prices this month is a peculiarity of the rice market. Although rice -- as in Middle Eastern pilaf, Asian rice bowls, or Latin American beans and rice -- is a staple around the world, less than 8 percent of the global crop is traded internationally. Most of it is eaten within 60 miles of where it's grown.
So when some of the largest producers -- among them India, Vietnam, China and Brazil -- curtail exports to protect prices at home, the international marketplace reels and prices for imported varieties soar, Childs said.
"A thinly traded market will be more volatile, easily shaken up," Childs said.
The most expensive rice varieties, those known in the trade as aromatics, can't be grown in the United States. But with imported types such as Thai jasmine and Indian basmati selling for $1,000 and $2,000 a ton, respectively, farmers here are still reaping profits.
California's cooler weather produces mostly medium- and short-grain rice varieties, the moist, sticky kinds favored for sushi or risotto. With some of its main competitors out of the market -- Australia because of a long drought and Egypt because of a decision to cut back on exports -- the price of medium-grain rice rose from $551 per ton in April 2007 to $750 per ton a year later.
The long-grain varieties that grow better in the warmer climates of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana went from $397 a ton in April 2007 to $794 a year later as competitors such as India and Brazil also pulled back from the international market.
So even though the global crop is larger than ever, and U.S. production is strong, third-generation California rice farmer Zachary Dennis will get a good deal for the grain he's planting now.
"This is probably the first year in a while that we'll do more than break even," Dennis said as rice from the biplane seeding his fields pelted the cab of his truck.
It'll come in time to pull him and other growers out of the red, where they've been plunged by escalating fuel and fertilizer prices, he said.
Fuel for the biplanes rose from last year's price of $2.30 a gallon when bought in bulk to $3.50 this year, a 52 percent increase, said Rick Richter, who owns and flies the Ag Cat used to seed Dennis' fields.