Italy’s 2020 drought kills rice used for risotto

Rice fields in northern Italy are expected to be flooded with water.  Instead, many are dry and dying.  (Davide Bertuccio for the Washington Post)
Rice fields in northern Italy are expected to be flooded with water. Instead, many are dry and dying. (Davide Bertuccio for the Washington Post)

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VESPOLATE, Italy – There had been just one day of good rain all year, the afternoon temperature was approaching 100 degrees again and Fabrizio Rizzotti entered his fields – 220 acres of rice, a plant that grows when submerged in water.

He didn’t need his boots.

The rice stalks were withered and stunted. The field, rather than lush with shin-high water, creaked underfoot. Rizzotti, a seventh generation rice farmer, said the paddy was already dead – “not a single grain of rice can come from this”, he said – then he gestured to an adjacent field, slightly greener and in desperate need of more water.

“In a few days this field will also be dead, he said. “It hurts the stomach.”

During Europe’s sweltering summer, few places were hit more directly than northern Italy, where extreme drought dried up a major river, triggered a state of emergency and put the famous plains agriculture in the country in great difficulty. The drought is also causing Italians to worry about what they take for granted: not only the green rice fields typical of this region, but also the foods derived from them. Especially the risotto.


Estimation of the amount of water

evaporates from the earth’s surface and

vegetation, compared to normal.

Average between early June and July.

Estimation of the amount of water

evaporates from the earth’s surface and

vegetation, compared to normal.

Average between early June and July.

Estimation of the amount of water evaporating from the earth’s surface and vegetation,

compared to normal. Average between early June and July.

“Less rice will mean more expensive risotto,” Rizzotti said.

italian rice is risotto rice – great for soaking up flavors while still intact – and Rizzotti is the kind of farmer who cares about the food as much as his crops. He named his dog Risotto. And even his last name evokes the dish.

For most of his life, Rizzotti ate risotto several days a week: first in recipes prepared by his mother, then his wife, and now – he says wistfully – his mother again, who has been cooking since his wife died of leukemia in April.

Rizzotti said he had no choice but to continue. Another year of sowing. Another 15-hour period of days fueled by the choice local risotto, heavy with pork and beans.

But as periods of extreme weather become more frequent, he begins to view rice as a precious commodity. The main Italian agricultural group predicts that yields this year will be 30% lower than normal. All around Rizzotti’s farm, other rice farmers must guess whether future years could be similar. In the irrigation trenches that run alongside Rizzotti’s property, fed using a local canal system created in the 1860s, the water is normally several feet high. Now there is only a sediment-laden net.

“Basically, there is no more water,” he said.

One recent afternoon, with a sweaty brow, he got into his car and checked out other parts of his property. The health of a field can change from place to place, depending on the composition of the soil, the distance from the main water channels and the decisions of the farmer. But even Rizzotti’s healthiest fields, with the most stable water supply, had dark green spots that signaled the onset of dehydration. The crickets buzzed; a few dragonflies buzzed above the brown grass. The only other movement was a neighbor’s sprinkler on the horizon – fanning what little water was left in a cornfield.

“Everyone faces tough choices,” Rizzotti said. “My neighbor is watering his maize to save his cows. But he lets his rice die.

Rice can only grow when it is flooded; an inch or two of standing water will work when the plant is young, farmers say, but it needs six or seven inches in the deep summer. Rizzotti’s rice lacks all of these cues. Last year his business, which includes his son and another employee, produced 350 tonnes of white rice. This year, he says, they will be lucky to reach 150 tons.

“And that’s the best-case scenario,” he said of a situation in which his take-home pay would drop from $30,000 to $15,000. “The only hope, even for that, is if it starts to rain. It’s raining exponentially.

But the forecast called for 95 degree days and continuous sunshine for at least the next week.

This part of Italy, a plain between the Alps and the Po, is the predominant rice-growing area in a country that accounts for half of the rice in the European Union.

Here, the farmers, like the winegrowers, speak in poetic terms of the qualities of the air, the melting of the snow and the soil, factors of their culture.

Rizzotti – which uses century-old machinery in some of the stages transforming his rice — comes alive talking about the purity of his rice under the microscope. (No micro-cracks, he says.) When he sells his rice to area restaurants, he asks them to credit his farm, called Riso Rizzotti, on their menus.

“For people here, rice is the first food, right after breast milk,” said Marta Grassi, a Michelin-starred chef at Tantris restaurant in nearby Novara.

Arborio is the most famous variety of Italian rice, synonymous among Americans with risotto. But in northern Italy, among grandmothers and chefs, it is derided as second-rate rice – rice that quickly becomes mushy and doesn’t hold its shape. The most popular rice is carnaroli, which stays al dente much longer.

“You need a risotto with texture,” said Claudia Fonio, 40, a chef at a restaurant near Rizzotti’s farm. “You have to taste the grain.”

She said her brother also had paddy fields and they too had problems.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the start of a series of crises that will happen again and again,” she said.

Fonio uses Rizzotti’s rice in his cooking, and Rizzotti sometimes comes to his restaurant after work – as happened on a recent evening. As Rizzotti took his seat, a sous chef began preparing his risotto over the fire, with only a black fan to keep it cool. Some 20 minutes later came one of the regional classics – paniscia, with fatty salami – and Rizzotti didn’t wait for it to get cold, even though it was still 95 degrees.

“That’s how it should be,” he said of the dish. No pantyhose. Every grain has taste.

He ate quickly and got ready to leave. Back home, he said, his mother was skipping dinner because of the heat.

“Well,” he said, “she had two ice creams.”

Rizzotti said the heat and dryness now define his job, which at this time of year is largely about water management: deciding which fields get how much water. At meetings of the consortium that manages water distribution among farmers and has instituted quotas, there have been fights and screaming matches.

“One field went against another,” Rizzotti said. “A war of the poor against the poor.”

He sees himself not just as a farmer, but as an investor and strategist. The more relevant question now is whether extreme drought is an anomaly. Some of the farmers he knows are betting on a return to normal. But Rizzotti said farmers might not want to face reality because it’s too painful.

“Because it means destroying an industry that dates back centuries,” he said.

Rizzotti said he has spent wisely over the years. He has no crazy loans. In good times, he accumulated savings. He said he could handle a tough year. But not a series of difficult years. Recently, he started planting some soybeans, which is less water dependent than rice. He said that later he can imagine switching 50% of his land to soybeans and wheat.

It’s a way, he said, to “reduce the risk.”

It would also mean less risotto from Riso Rizzotti.

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