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Fine Grained

Meticulous care has kept Ross Koda's family farm a leader in rice production.

Photo: Toni Gauthier

By Sam Scott

Koda Farms makes a virtue out of what once was a painful necessity, explains Ross Koda, '86, president of what may be the oldest family-owned-and-operated rice farm and mill in California.

When founder Keisaburo Koda set out to farm in the Central Valley in the late 1920s, he was unable to find someone willing to sell prime land to a Japanese immigrant. And so he turned south from the rich rice fields near Sacramento to an area outside Los Baños better known for livestock.

Blessed with an inventiveness that included using airplanes to broadcast seed in paddies, Koda was soon a bona fide Rice King. His perfectionism and the remove from other growers led him to create an autonomous operation. Koda didn't just grow rice; he dried, milled and packaged it himself. After the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II stripped the farm of 90 percent of its assets, Koda's sons—including Ross's father, Edward—rebuilt the enterprise in the shadow of their lost farm.

The operation retains its independent streak today. It is one of the few rice growers to raise its own seeds, a tedious three-year cycle of harvesting from small fields and replanting in larger ones—all the time weeding out stragglers—while enough seed is gathered for a final crop. By the time rice leaves the farm packaged for market, it's been under the Kodas' care for years.

Photo: Toni Gauthier

Ross says this is part of an innate respect for quality. Before one variety of its rice is milled, workers disassemble and vacuum everything to remove any stray grains left over from processing another variety. Large co-ops, milling rice from many farms, would find such attention to detail impossible, he adds. Such meticulousness makes for loyal customers. "If they appreciate the end product, well, then they appreciate what we did at the beginning."

 The farm is most famous for its heirloom Kokuho Rose rice, a moist, sticky variety the family developed 60 years ago. Used in foods from sushi to risotto, the rice provides a far lower yield than many industrial farms would tolerate, Koda says, but the floral, slightly sweeter taste makes up for it.

In the past decade, Koda Farms has created an organic label and gained attention for other varieties. Last year Mark Bittman, a food journalist for the New York Times, called its brown rice "probably the best produced in the United States."

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