A father/son team does it all at Chico Rice
“We’re the real deal; Carter and I do everything. We plant the seed, drive the tractor, run the harvester, mill the rice, and package it.”
A cluster of tall and ample silos juts skyward to interrupt the flatland where the Knowles Family Farm sits along a country road. Brilliant green rice fields fill the rest of the landscape as far as the eye can see. Tom and Carter Knowles run the rice farm and milling operation that results in Chico Rice, blonde and brown. The father and son team look more like brothers, Carter a taller and slightly leaner version of his dad. Their matching bright smiles reflect the easy-going attitude of the pair. Chico Rice is an entrepreneurial side venture that Tom and Carter began in late 2014, born in answer to the question, “Could we mill our own rice?” The journey to get there has taken the duo out of the rice fields and into unchartered lands of e-commerce and retail sales, where their super fresh, small batch artisanal organic rice is literally getting eaten up.
Raw unfinished rice at harvest is referred to as “paddy rice” and is inedible. “Paddy rice in its hull is scratchy, dusty, itchy, and miserable to work with,” explained Carter. “It doesn’t feel like we’re farming food.” And, he continued, most rice is farmed for commercial use, harvested, collected, and trucked to large facilities for milling and processing. Tom said for this reason, many rice farmers feel disconnected from their product. Each year, the family got bags of rice back from the processor and would give these out as gifts. The recipients always asked if it was their rice. In fact, it was a mix of rice from dozens of farms, and there was no way to provide a bag of their rice to friends and family. . . unless they had their own mill.
More than half of the world’s population depends on rice as a staple for daily calories. Though there are some old-style traditional hand milling techniques still in use, many villages around the world rely on shared small mills, sometimes even mobile ones, to process paddy rice. All rice has the husk outer layer, which, when removed, reveals the bran layer; rice with this bran layer is commonly known as brown rice. When the bran layer is polished away, the end product is white (blonde) rice. Since white rice has a shelf life of up to five years, compared to one year for brown rice, most of the world mills and eats white rice that has been stored for years. The Knowles decided to purchase a small, white-rice mill so they could eat the rice they grow. “We looked online and found a company in Brazil that made a mill that fit our needs. We took a shot in the dark and waited six months for it to arrive,” said Tom. He laughed remembering how, when it finally arrived, they had no idea how to assemble or work it. The thrill that followed when they did get it together and milled their first batch of rice is something they won’t ever forget.
“We looked at each other and said, this is so sweet and good,” Tom smiled. When friends and family agreed, they recognized they had something unique to offer. “We came to realize that it was so flavorful compared to any other rice because of the fresh, just milled element,” Carter said. With this mill, they can process rice to order in a small batch, artisanal way that is in high demand by consumers.
Consumers nationwide are very interested in small batch premium food options that are becoming readily available in products from cereal to beverages and everything in between. In the past five years, artisanal product sales have increased almost thirty percent, according to Ingredients Network. “We are part of the artisanal small batch movement. People want to know where their food is coming from,” said Tom. He continued, “We’re the real deal; Carter and I do everything. We plant the seed, drive the tractor, run the harvester, mill the rice, and package it.”
Tom and Carter knew that people who are looking for a premium rice want it to be organic and non-gmo. Carter explained that organic rice growing is tricky since there are few options to keep down pests and weeds and therefore yield is lower. The lower yields drive the price up some, which premium product seekers expect. Luckily, the Knowles had a plot of land that had never been farmed, which provided the perfect opportunity for quick and easy organic certification. As they suspected, locals hereabout value small batch freshly produced organic food, as evidenced by Chico Rice’s great success, beginning at Chico’s Saturday Farmers’ Market.
Ask customers buying the rice, and adjectives abound: “wonderful,” “nutty,” “wow,” “tasty,” “fresh” keep repeating. One said she felt no need to add butter or herbs when she serves it.
In 2015, Tom and Carter took their paddy rice and their new mill to that market. They processed organic paddy rice into fresh, blonde rice to order. The people loved it, according to Tom. “It was fun for people to watch it work, but it was also noisy and dusty,” he said. The mill was taking a beating with weekly transport, and they added a much larger and non-mobile second mill to process brown rice, which requires different equipment. It became less feasible to mill the rice at the market, so with increasing sales, they opted to have people pre-order the rice and they brought it to the market milled and bagged. Eventually, a cousin, Eartha Shanti, took over the farmers’ market stall, where she continues to sample and sell Chico Rice weekly, no pre-ordering necessary. Team Knowles turned their focus to getting Chico Rice into stores and selling online.
Both Tom and Carter expressed gratitude for their loyal customers and the great feedback they get about the quality and flavor of their rice. “We get a lot of love at the farmers’ market and online,” Tom said. Eartha affirmed this, saying she gets nonstop positive feedback each week. For herself she said “I’ve been eating brown rice for thirty years, and Chico Rice’s product has spoiled all other products for me. It’s that much better.” Ask customers buying the rice, and adjectives abound: “wonderful,” “nutty,” “wow,” “tasty,” “fresh” keep repeating. One said she felt no need to add butter or herbs when she serves it.
Tom noted that their sales have consistently risen every month since they began. In fact, this year they will just barely have enough paddy rice to carry the demand for Chico Rice until harvest time in September. Currently, in addition to the farmers’ market, Chico Rice is sold at S&S, New Earth Market, Chico Natural Foods, Made in Chico, all in Chico, and Holiday Market in Paradise.
It is also the only rice used at OM restaurant in Chico. In addition, the team ships rice to a few stores outside of Butte County. In the coming year, however, they plan to set aside twice as much rice, with plans to work with a distributor getting their rice into Bay Area and Sacramento stores. “The business is going in the right direction with increasing sales,” said Carter. He mentioned that if sales continue, they could employ more family members in the long term.
There is clearly a sense of pride that both Tom and Carter project about the family operation. Carter went further to describe that our region is special in that we have a majority of family farms which are from 200-2,000 acres. As in the case of the Knowles, the farmers are people in the family who own and run the farm. He said in other parts of California it’s quite different. “In the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere, the family farms have been taken over by corporations, which changes the nature of farming,” observed Carter.
William Archer Knowles had no idea when he began farming in the early 1920s, that four generations later the family farm would be going strong. The farm has grown to include 1300 acres of rice, seventy of which grow the organic product used for Chico Rice and the remainder farmed conventionally. Over time, the farm has also produced walnuts and almonds, and sheep were raised there in the early days. William passed the farm down to his son Clark, who taught his son Tom about farming. Tom said he wasn’t sure what would happen to the farm when he got ready to retire, since his son Carter went off to college in San Diego with no intention to pursue the family business. Carter had a change of heart, however, and returned to the farm in 2013, with his college diploma. He hasn’t looked back. “I never thought I would be here, but in the end, I didn’t settle for this, I chose it,” said Carter. His dad commented, “It’s a dream come true to work with my son just like I worked the farm with my dad. We do all aspects of the work together.” He added, “Since Carter got involved, we planted a new almond orchard and are trying to diversify. This was one of the reasons for starting Chico Rice.”
Chico Rice has brought diversification to the Knowles Family Farm, but it has also given much more. Tom and Carter now feel directly connected to the crop they are raising. They mill, market, and eat their own rice. People in our area have the opportunity to enjoy locally grown, organic rice at a unique level of guaranteed fresh production. As the rice cooker bell rings and the fragrant steam of a freshly cooked pot of Chico Rice fills the kitchen, we can add our thanks to Carter and Tom for this local product.
According to the American Commodity Company, there are approximately 100 varieties of rice grown worldwide. Twenty of these are grown in California, which is the second biggest rice growing state in our nation, behind Arkansas. The Butte County Agricultural Commissioner reports that rice is the county’s second biggest crop (walnuts are first) with over 100,000 acres utilized. These acres are tended by 129 farms, just eleven of which are certified organic. The Sacramento Valley started producing rice in 1912 and now grows over half a million acres of rice in total. The climate and soil here provide ideal conditions for producing a variety called Japonica, which is a short, sweet, and complex round grain that is sticky and moist when cooked. Japonica is a distinct variety that California is famous for and accounts for 85% of the state’s rice crop, including that grown by the Knowles Family Farm.
Bonnie and Ken Chapman are partners in many of life’s great endeavors including marriage, raising two children, global travel adventures and writing for Edible Shasta-Butte. Both are avid trail runners and you can find them enjoying Upper Bidwell Park or wherever the trails take them.