html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Right now, I am entirely happy.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Right now, I am entirely happy.

I can’t even tell you all the ways I had such a great day. In October the light gets clearer, so all the colors were stronger today. I was in rice fields near the Sutter Buttes, and I love the Sutter Buttes because they are the smallest mountain range in the world. They are so close and self-contained, and I know they must be beautiful, but no one can go in them, so I just look at them and think they are perfect. They’re harvesting rice now; all is golden straw under a very pure blue sky. Tractor treads weave patterns in the rice checks; egrets watch from nearly every berm. I saw huge old walnut trees and John Deere tractors and pheasants and dirt roads and clear cold water running in canals.

I was with a district manager and a senior engineer. We went to dozens of structures and turnouts and they never once got tired of my questions. They wanted to talk about moving water as much as I wanted to hear about it, and that never happens. They explained how each thing worked, were never condescending or impatient when I asked them to please say the explanation again. But! There were more times when the first explanation confirmed my silent understanding than there were times that I couldn’t follow an explanation. I am getting there.

We finished early, and I figured I would never have a better opportunity to fulfill a dream I’ve had for probably ten years. On the district manager’s advice, I drove over to a rice mill. I’ve driven past these for years; they’re ornate factory-looking places, surrounded by fields and nothing. From the road they stand out for miles; every time I’ve driven past one, I’ve wondered how they worked. So I walked in, wearing my CalPoly shirt, which is the secret handshake that gets you into every last place in the Central Valley, and I asked nicely, and I got an hourlong tour of a wild rice mill. Today I saw where your bag of Trader Joe’s wild rice was born. I love bored foremen.

He explained every machine to me, every sorter and dryer and sifter and grader. He showed me the instrumentation and control panels, and I already knew how they worked because water districts stole the ideas for SCADA systems from factory control systems. The neatest things?

  • They can sell every single byproduct from milling, including the dust they sweep off the floor. (It goes to bulk composters to make your potting soil.)

  • Farmers fire so much buckshot at redwing blackbirds that rice mills have a special machine, explicitly for getting buckshot out of harvested rice. I saw five gallon buckets, full of chaff and buckshot.

  • And! Their final sort, after drying and hulling and sifting, once the rice is almost uniform? They run the rice up a conveyor, where an optical scan identifies individual grains of rice that aren’t exactly the hue the machine is set for. In a moving stream of rice, the machine can blow exactly one off-color grain away with a puff of air, so that your bag of long-grain black rice looks flawless.

  • The world is truly magic.

    20 Comments:

    Blogger Megan said...

    Jason, when you get home safely at the end of the season, are you going to take me for a flight over the Sac Valley and especially the Sutter Buttes?

    I got scared for you again yesterday, but then I read that they were ground crews.

    6:47 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    hey, don't rub it in how well you can write.

    6:47 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I think that's birdshot they try to keep out of the rice--it's roughly the size of BBs, which is a lot smaller than buckshot, and used for trap and skeet shooting and (oddly enough) for hunting/killing birds.

    Andy

    8:05 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I had never heard of the Sutter Buttes before, so I did a Google search and read about them. Quite scenic, thought it would be a lot nicer if there were public access.

    Peter
    Iron Rails & Iron Weights

    8:13 PM  
    Anonymous Mitch said...

    my CalPoly shirt, which is the secret handshake that gets you in to every last place in the Central Valley

    Is this a tight shirt?

    I'm just trying to figure out if I can pull this sort of thing off.

    8:15 PM  
    Blogger Megan said...

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    8:34 PM  
    Blogger Megan said...

    Andy:
    Yes, it looked like tiny BBs. I don't want to think about whether they are made of lead.

    Peter:
    I had never heard of the Sutter Buttes until I saw them for the first time. Ever since then, I've wanted to see them up close. I've driven around them, on the closest public roads. Maybe next year, I'll give myself one of these hikes for my birthday.

    Mitch:
    I really think it is the shirt itself. However, I also went to Davis, which is CalPoly's big rival in the Valley. If the CalPoly shirt ever let me down, I could proclaim my other allegiances.

    (Deleted comment was me, getting the link wrong.)

    8:39 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I really like the first part of what you've written Megan. Have you ever read Robert Byron (the travel writer)? There's an excerpt on my blog (under 'travel') that you might like.

    As for rice, I've got to say that the rice I ate in the States was of an awful quality. Basmati any day!

    12:42 AM  
    Anonymous Mitch said...

    Neat, so I'll get myself one of these shirts, and next time I'm in the Valley I'll show up randomly at some farms. I'll be all like "long-crested weirs!" and "underflow gates!" and they'll be like "right on!" and I'll get to see all kinds of cool farm shit.

    Actually, I think it would be cool to see a laser-leveling system in action. I'm all about technology.

    4:01 AM  
    Anonymous ennis said...

    According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birdshot:

    Lead shot is still the best performer for the money, but with environmental restrictions on the use of lead, especially with waterfowl, steel, bismuth, and tungsten composites are required. Steel, being significantly less dense than lead, requires larger shot sizes, but is a good choice when cost is a consideration. Steel, however, cannot safely be used in some older shotguns without causing damage to either the bore or to the choke of the shotgun due to the hardness of steel shot. Tungsten shot is equal or even greater in density than lead, but is far more expensive. Bismuth shot falls in between steel and tungsten shot in both density and cost.

    6:17 AM  
    Blogger Megan said...

    Mitch:
    That is a great description of what I do. It keeps working. I got to climb all over a tomato harvester and see how it works. But my greatest triumph was the time I started chatting up a road construction crew. They let me DRIVE THE GRADER. I called everyone I knew that night to tell them I got to drive the grader.

    7:49 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Why is there no public access? Along 280 here, and I'm sure other places around here as well, there are, what must be, 1000s of acres of land covered with trees, no development at all, really pretty. And all off limits, stupid water district land. I don't know why they can't just put some trails in and allow people up there to hike. But, instead there are big no trespassing signs and barbed wire fence.

    Justin

    11:48 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Justin -
    Landowners sometimes restrict public access out of liability concerns. Some states have laws shielding landowners from liability, but there generally are some exceptions and in any event no one wants to deal with the hassel and expense of defending a lawsuit.

    Peter
    Iron Rails & Iron Weights

    5:38 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Yeah, and not a Mcdonald's or Starbucks in sight..what is that?!

    "no development"..ay, ay ,ay.

    4:18 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Ahh, so it's not public land? Sometimes public land is off limits. Like it's water district land (I don't really know why all that land is off limits). Or, there are endangered species known to live on the land. Or someone decided it's too dangerous for people to be in that area(never a good reason for restricting access in my opinion.)

    But, yeah, I know land owners have liability issues when they allow public use of their land. It's stupid, and really, there should be solid laws put in place to protect people nice enough to share their land with the public.

    Justin

    10:04 AM  
    Anonymous ptm said...

    Wow, that optical scanning puffer machine sounds super-cool

    10:41 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    That's one high precision blow job, let me tell you ...

    2:04 PM  
    Anonymous YK said...

    Megan, you might like this book, if you haven't seen it already: Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape.

    8:55 PM  
    Blogger Megan said...

    YK understands me.

    11:10 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    It sounds like an awesome day-- glad you got to see (and share) all that good stuff.

    2:25 PM  

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