country life bc

Rice could add diversity to Fraser Valley crops

Ideally suited for small lots of marginal FV farm land to produce food or Japanese sake
by Peter Mitham, publihed on Country Life in BC February 2014 issue

ABBOTSFORD – Sake is a drop in the proverbial bucket – about 2% – when it comes to overall alcohol sales in B.C. but for Masa Shiroki, it represents an emerging opportunity for growers.

Shiroki has produced sake at a studio on Granville Island in Vancouver since 2006. Since 2011, he has used rice grown on a farm in Abbotsford that now totals four acres. The farm produces enough of the grain – about 3,000 kilograms this past fall – for about 5,000 bottles of sake, or approximately 1,875 litres. The lees also find their way into a variety of fragrant rice-based products, from salad dressings to cosmetics.

But with an overall production of about 9,000 litres of sake, Shiroki is looking for growers willing to grow an additional 12 acres of rice to supply his sake studio.

Rice not native to BC
Rice isn’t typically grown in B.C.; indeed, Shiroki boasts the world’s most northerly rice paddy. Gimpu rice, which provides the seed for Shiroki’s three-year-old Abbotsford farm, comes from Hokkaido, Japan, located at latitude 43 degrees north.

However, mild yet relatively cool, dry conditions that limit fungal diseases and the fertile clay soils of the Fraser River delta produce good quality rice for Shiroki’s sake. The yields are less than in Japan, but there’s no disputing the elegant, aromatic character of the sake the rice yields.

“Our environment may be even better suited for rice growing than Japan right now,” he says. “It may not be the same kind of volume yield we can get from Japan, but that’s fine by me.”

Better margins with BC rice
Most of the rice Shiroki uses comes from Japan, but a provincial tax break introduced in 2012 is giving B.C. breweries, wineries and distilleries a financial incentive to use local ingredients. The more local rice Shiroki is able to source, the more tax he saves and the better the margins on the sake he produces.

And with bottles of sake retailing for approximately $25 apiece, some of those savings would benefit the growers supplying him with the premium raw ingredient.

Shiroki believes the Lower Mainland has plenty of parcels of farmland that are either underutilized or too wet for traditional crops.

(Indeed, one of the arguments for developing the contentious Southlands property in Delta was the thick soils and lack of drainage that made it difficult to harvest root crops.)

What he needs are owners of marginal farm properties who are willing to work with him to produce rice.

How to grow rice
“What I need are some community farmers. I am hoping to create a cluster of people,” he says, adding: “We can come in and teach you how to grow rice.”

Shiroki, after all, imported all the equipment he needed for his initial four acres, reducing the capital outlay additional farmers would need to make.

Shiroki believes, with climate change allowing many crops to be grown further north than they once were and major rice producing regions such as California facing restrictions on water, the west coast of Canada can add rice to the more than 200 products it already produces.

“Pretty soon, California is going to dry up. Global warming is pushing every plant material that’s grown north,” he says.

“Canada will definitely become one of the countries that can grow rice. I want to propagate the idea of a rice growing culture in Canada.”