Great sushi depends on rice that is just right — grains that are glossy and yielding after cooking, sticky with a touch of sweetness, but able to retain their color, aroma and shape.
Nearly all sushi rice used in the United States is grown in the Sacramento River valley, where the snowmelt and the region's warm days and cool nights create ideal conditions for the medium- and short-grain varieties preferred by sushi chefs.
But even in California, where many chefs have developed relationships with farmers and put their names on the menus, rice is an anonymous, bulk product — a faceless commodity.
Fifth-generation farmer Michael Bosworth, 28, wants to change that. He's selling his family's organic rice directly to restaurants and retailers, skipping the middle man, preserving the identity and quality of his grain, and helping consumers connect to the source of their food.
He's among the first in the nation to try such an approach.
"We're trying to make a traceable product, to preserve the identity from this farm," he said.
For Bosworth, doing business directly with buyers allows him to escape the volatility of prices set in an international marketplace. That, in turn, gives him the security he needs to invest more in rice he grows, and deliver a better product.
He has won some supporters, such as chef Billy Ngo, of Kru in Sacramento.
It wasn't until Ngo visited Bosworth's farm and tried the rice that he bought into the idea of paying a little more for rice he could track from the farm to his restaurant near the state Capitol.
Now Bosworth's name is on the menu. He still delivers Ngo his rice, and often stays for sushi.
"It's great to have a face with the product," Ngo said.
Part of the appeal of Bosworth's approach is the essential role rice plays in sushi.
As the delicacy transitioned from Japan, where it had been a part of the culture for hundreds of years, to California, where Japanese restaurants first started serving it in the 1960s, cooks struggled to find the right rice.
The quality wasn't there, said chef Andy Matsuda, owner and chief instructor at the Sushi Chef Institute in Los Angeles. The taste was off, and it just didn't feel right, Matsuda said.
"The rice was too big, not so comfortable in the mouth. It was a very bulky feeling," he said.
Over the decades, California rice has improved considerably, he said.
"It's more like the fresh vegetable that it is," he said.
In spite of the demand for higher-quality rice, and buy-in from chefs such as Ngo, who takes 150 pounds of rice a week, the transition to direct marketing hasn't been easy, Bosworth said.
Rice growers usually sell directly to marketers, and along the way, the grain can be mixed with that grown by other farms. Carving alternative paths to the consumer has taken time and persistence.
"I had no idea how hard it would be," Bosworth said.
First, there is the additional expense of tracking the grain as it's dried, hulled and polished, then kept in cold storage for preservation. Storing the rice is expensive, but selling too quickly and running out is not an option when you're trying to earn the trust of a buyer, Bosworth said.
Also, for farmers and chefs who work together, one of the treats is being able to try different varietals, and together find one that suits the climate and the soil, and brings something different to the dinner plate. A vegetable farmer can grow two rows of, say, cardoons, for a chef willing to brave the thistles.
When Ngo approached him to grow Koshihikari short-grain — a high-end rice traditionally grown in Japan, with a natural sweetness and creamy but firm consistency that makes it ideal for sushi — Bosworth couldn't do it. At least not right away.
A rice farmer needs at least 100,000 pounds of a variety to make milling feasible, said Bosworth.
Selling to a large buyer such as the University of California, Davis, which takes 1,500 pounds of his grain a week, has its own hurdles — think liability insurance and third-party auditors.
"Their protocol just didn't have a way to work with some guy driving rice down in his pickup truck," said Bosworth.
Linda Adams, director of sustainability and nutrition for the campus, said she'd been working on sourcing the food served to students. It was hard with rice, but Bosworth made it happen.
"We really want the students to understand what they eat," she said.
Bosworth has still not met his goal of marketing all of his organic rice directly to consumers, but he's adding clients.
Judging from the reception his rice had when it was served at a recent University of California Davis event, mixed with halibut and scooped into endive leaves, he's earning the loyalty of new customers.
Students lining up for the appetizer read an explanation about its origins — and liked what they saw.
"You don't know where anything comes from anymore," said Roger Moy, 20. "Everything is mass produced."