Big success with a small grain
May/June 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers
Photos by Scott Monaco
Family builds rice farm with hard work, perseverance
For Ross Koda, rice isn't just a crop—it's a longtime family tradition. Ross and his sister specialize in growing, milling and marketing an heirloom rice variety their forefathers developed, proving the adage that what's old is new again.
"You have to be able to change and take risks in order to have success in farming," said Ross Koda.
And change, risk and success are all words that have been used to tell the story of Koda Farms. Located in South Dos Palos, in Merced County, it is a multigenerational family rice farm and mill run by siblings Ross and Robin Koda. Together, the brother and sister continue the legacy set forth for them generations before.
It started in 1908, when Ross and Robin's grandfather, Keisaburo Koda, moved from Japan to America with a simple dream of earning a decent living.
"He came here without anything," Ross said. "And so he had to learn how to survive."
After testing a few occupations, Keisaburo settled in 1928 on rice farming and bought a small parcel of land in the San Joaquin Valley.
Once dawn breaks and the rice straw is dry enough, Silvano Esparza is hard at work harvesting rice at the farm run by siblings Ross and Robin Koda.
"He chose this area rather than the Sacramento Valley, where most of the rice production was taking place, because they were converting a lot of land used for cattle production here and he knew he could get a fair price," Ross said. "It was a risky move because he wasn't sure if he could even grow rice here, but it paid off."
Thanks to Keisaburo's pioneering techniques, like aerial seeding and installing a modern dryer and mill to process the crop onsite, the rice farm quickly grew—and his successes earned him the nickname "Rice King" among Japanese-Americans.
But in 1942, along with tens of thousands of others, Keisaburo and his family experienced a monumental setback. That year, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the mass incarceration of West Coast Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the Kodas spent the next several years in a Colorado internment camp.
Ross and Robin Koda
When they returned to their farm, the family found their facilities had been stripped down and everything—land, buildings and equipment—sold off. Keisaburo was heartbroken, yet determined to make life better for his family and his fellow countrymen. He became active in the Asian-American community, while entrusting the farming operation to sons Edward and William.
The sons, with their father acting as counsel, worked hard to restore the farm to its original glory by gradually repurchasing land and building another processing facility a quarter mile from their original homestead. They even managed to improve upon the farm's former success by tapping into an unfilled market niche for sweet rice. While most of the rice produced in California is of the medium grain variety, sweet rice—also called sticky rice—is a short grain variety grown primarily in Asian countries.
"My family always had a very entrepreneurial spirit," Ross said. "If they couldn't get into a market, they'd make their own market like they did with the sweet rice."
Ricardo Camarena, left, and Ross Koda inspect a bin of freshly harvested rice at the same mill building that has been in the family since the 1920s. Despite its lower yield and longer growing season, the Kodas said it is worth the effort to keep harvesting and packaging the Kokuho Rose variety.
About 10 years later, the family enjoyed another success when they established a rice-breeding program that resulted in a unique variety of rice that Keisaburo named Kokuho Rose. (Kokuho translates in Japanese to "treasure of the country.") This medium grain rice is a cross between a Cal Pearl California and a Middle Eastern variety.
Kokuho Rose is now an heirloom variety because it has been produced for more than 50 years. But growing it involves some risks. Compared to new varieties of rice, Kokuho Rose is low yielding (less rice per acre), slow to mature (longer growing season) and tall in stature (more difficult to harvest). It takes a three-year commitment just to produce the seed.
Despite those difficulties, the Kodas' Kokuho Rose has emerged a customer favorite and remains their farm's signature product. It is popular among Japanese-Americans and is also used in everything from Italian risotto to Spanish paella. In fact, it is the trademark and property of the Koda family business, which alone produces the pure strain of this specific variety.
"In general, the Kokuho variety is usually grown more for flavor than for yield," Ross said. "But we have a special place in our hearts for it, mainly because our grandfather loved and believed in it so much, so we've always been determined to find a market for it."
Ross and Robin Koda now farm more than 4,000 acres of both conventional and organic rice on their farm. While they concentrate primarily on the heirloom Kokuho Rose variety, producing both the original brown rice varietal as well as a premium sushi rice varietal, they still produce the sweet rice their father Edward and uncle William started on the farm. Their Sho-Chiku-Bai Sweet Rice has gained favor with a diverse array of ethnic groups and is used in everything from Chinese dim sum to Korean confections to traditional rice puddings. In recent years, Ross and Robin added basmati rice to the farming operation. And because they have a mill onsite, they also produce several varieties of rice flours that have become particularly popular as gluten-free substitutes.
Koda Farms is considered the oldest, continuously family-owned and -operated rice farm and mill in California. It is one of the few fully integrated rice farms in the state—meaning it includes harvesting, milling and packaging onsite. The Kodas sell their rice online (www.kodafarms.com), at the farm and at several specialty stores across California. In addition, they have found new markets for their heirloom rice through one-on-one interaction and education with customers, such as Robin does weekly at the Alemany Farmers' Market in San Francisco.
M Café President Yuta Tsunoda uses Koda Rice at his L.A.-area restaurants in a variety of dishes—from sushi to the Big Macro Veggie Burger.
"We like direct marketing because it gives you more control over how your product is presented," she explained. "And for us, since this is an extremely specialized strain of rice, we feel very passionate about telling the story correctly."
They are also able to tell their story through partnerships such as the one forged with the M Café restaurants in the Los Angeles area (www.mcafedechaya.com). The cuisine is based on a macrobiotic diet, which stresses whole, natural foods eaten in season and as minimally processed as possible. Opened in 2005, M Café has achieved status among its patrons as the best place to get greens and grains, and Yuta Tsunoda, president of M Café, acknowledged that he couldn't have opened this type of restaurant without the Kodas and their heirloom rice.
"We have researched a lot of different organic rice, but the Koda Farms rice is absolutely amazing. It's all we use," Tsunoda said. "It's the only brand I know that's organic and heirloom—and the taste is absolutely amazing."
Up to 40 percent of the cuisine at M Café is based strictly on Koda Farms rice, including sushi, rice bowls, rice pudding and the Big Macro Veggie Burger.
"They're extremely discerning in the products they use," Robin said. "They were going to source their brown rice from Japan, but then they found us and decided it met their standards. In a macrobiotic cuisine, brown rice is the primary carbohydrate and people who follow a macrobiotic diet are very, very picky about their brown rice."
Despite the risks inherent to agriculture, the one thing siblings Ross and Robin don't plan on changing is their dedication to the family farm. For them, success relies on each grain of rice.
"It's all part of the tie of staying here and keeping the family farm going," Ross said. "It's also the challenge of keeping the family business together. There's a lot of history behind it and a lot of responsibility to keep it going."
"There are always things you can change or improve on," Robin added. "My dad did things a little differently than my grandfather and we're doing things a little differently than my dad. But we all have the same goal—to promote and preserve this heirloom rice."
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perfect rice, the Koda way
Here are Robin Koda's two favorite ways to cook her family's rice. She prefers the rice cooker method. Presoaking and multiple resting periods result in light, evenly cooked rice. Allow 1 to 1 1/2 hours to finish the rice, depending on your rice cooker. She also prefers to use purified water, but said tap water is fine.
Electric rice cooker
Rinse desired amount of rice (measured with cup supplied with cooker). Soak rice in purified water for 20 minutes; drain. Place in cooker; add purified water to the corresponding measurement line. Start cooker. After the appliance completes its cooking cycle, unplug it. (Depending on the individual cooker and amount of rice, this ranges anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes.) Do not open the lid. Let rest 15 to 30 minutes. Gently fluff with a fork. Close lid; let rest 5 to 10 minutes more. Makes 2 cups.
Rinse 1 cup rice and then soak in purified water for 30 minutes; drain. Combine rice with 1 3/4 cups water in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. (A nonstick pan with a tight-fitting glass lid is best.) Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer gently for 35 to 40 minutes or until water is absorbed. (The rice will look moist and the contents will still be bubbling a bit.) Remove from heat and let rest 15 to 30 minutes. Gently fluff with a fork. Cover; let rest 10 minutes more. Makes 2 cups.
Note: The rest periods are essential because they aid in the development of an overall uniform texture.