More Bang for Your Duck

After a rough few years, Sacramento Valley rice farmers are supplementing crop profits with environmental stewardship

Back Longreads Apr 4, 2017 By Sena Christian

Rice farmer Michael Bosworth can easily recognize the distinctive “kla-ha, kla-ha” call made by white-fronted geese on his property. They always sound like they’re having a good laugh. The birds’ high-pitched yelps reveal their presence before we approach a flock of them among some wintering grounds on a December morning.

“These guys will hang out ’til we drain the fields,” he says, pointing to the geese. “We get bald eagles all winter long.” Swans, great blue herons, white-faced ibis and other waterbirds swim and wade around flooded paddies. A flock flies above in a V formation, each bird catching the updraft of the one before them.

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Over the past few years, Bosworth has participated in programs to increase habitat for waterbirds along the 4,000-mile Pacific Flyway. At least one billion birds, representing 300 species, travel this journey from arctic Alaska to Patagonia, at the tip of South America. While that may sound like a lot, scientists believe it’s only a fraction of historic numbers. Along the way, millions of birds spend time in the Sacramento Valley, including at Bosworth’s Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst.

Bosworth has made his land a prime spot for the birds, and not just for the feel-good eco-vibes. Providing wildlife habitat actually boosts his bottom line.

Symbiotic Hardships 

Farmers have grown rice in the Sacramento Valley since 1912, and nearly all rice in California now comes from within about 100 miles of the state capitol due to the availability of water, ideal climate of warm days and cool evenings, and heavy clay soil that acts as a bathtub to retain water. California produces the second-largest acreage of rice in the U.S., behind Arkansas, with an annual economic impact of $5 billion contributing to the state’s claim to fame as an agricultural powerhouse.

But California’s rice industry has been hit hard by the multi-year drought, resulting in a significant dip in market value, says Nicole Montna Van Vleck, president and CEO of Montna Farms, located along Highway 99 south of Yuba City. The drought gutted production by around 25 percent in both 2014 and 2015. “It happened that quickly,” Van Vleck says of the situation, which she describes as the worst in a decade.

California farmers, anticipating a third year of drought, carried rice over into 2016. But there was more rain and snow than expected, allowing farmers to plant their full acreage. They were left sitting on large inventories and are now forced to sell to buyers in the lower-value markets of the Middle East and North Africa — as opposed to the traditionally higher-value markets of the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Europe. Current prices for some rice varieties aren’t even covering pre-harvest and harvest costs, Van Vleck says.

“We’re already doing good stuff. How can we tweak our practices out here to do even better stuff?” Michael Bosworth, farm manager, Rue & Forsman Ranch

Meanwhile, having a robust agricultural industry has meant accommodating crops and livestock by forcing out wildlife. Before farming came to the region 150 years ago, waterbird habitat was primarily provided by wetlands. Now managed wetlands make up only about one-third of their habitat in California and rice fields comprise nearly 60 percent, according to a 2010 report by Ducks Unlimited. California isn’t alone in this sacrifice, as about 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface has been modified into cropland and pastureland.

With this stark reality in mind, some biologists have embraced the idea of “reconciliation ecology,” which manages landscapes for both biodiversity and economic benefits. California rice farmers, for example, are being financially incentivized to provide habitat for birds and fish. That’s not bad for birds; waste grain left on the ground after harvest provides important nutrition for birds to load up on in the winter so they can return to their nesting grounds fat and healthy. Some birds also eat invertebrates, crawfish and snakes in the fields. Fish too benefit from a surplus of plankton and insects that proliferate in floodplains where rice farming occurs. “We’re already doing good stuff,” Bosworth says. “How can we tweak our practices out here to do even better stuff?”

Mutual Solutions

A fifth-generation California farmer, Bosworth is the farm manager of Rue & Forsman, a family enterprise that started operations in 1946 with beef cattle. Today, the 1,000-acre ranch also produces organic and conventional rice, and walnuts. In 2015, the business diversified into specialty rice, including jasmine, basmati, long-grain and short-grain rice that can be found in the dishes of many esteemed Sacramento restaurants, including Kru and the Kitchen.

Rice farmers produce one crop a year. In late March, farmers start leveling the ground and rolling shallow furrows. They add water to the fields and work nonstop to plant seeds by late May. Farmers then maintain water levels sufficient to satisfy rice. Once the grain heads mature, the fields are drained. Farm workers begin harvesting in early September. Afterward, leftover plant litters the ground.

With the passage of the Rice Straw Burning Reduction Act of 1991, growers who burned off this residue needed to find a less air-polluting practice. Back then, virtually every acre of rice straw was burned in the fall, says Paul Buttner, environmental affairs manager for the California Rice Commission in Sacramento. Growers quickly shifted to winter flooding — adding water back into the fields — to prompt decomposition, and an unintended consequence occurred: Migrating birds landed on the flooded paddies for fuel and rest.

According to Buttner, rice growers saw the response and wanted to expand on the practice. “As the growers say, it became our ‘hug-a-duck’ program,” he says. “There’s kind of a natural love affair between rice growers and waterbirds, because we are essentially putting back on the land water that was there a long time ago through natural flooding.”

Although some growers continue to burn today in accordance with the rules of their air-quality districts or remove the straw through mechanical means, most acreage — about 350,000 out of 550,000 total acres across the state — is flooded.

Farmers typically drain the water in late January so the soil has time to harden for the upcoming season. Could they be encouraged to keep their fields flooded a few inches into February and March, to provide surrogate wetlands for birds traveling north along the Pacific Flyway? The Nature Conservancy posed this question when piloting its Bird Returns program in 2014.

Bird Returns essentially rents fields from farmers on a short-term basis, using a reverse auction: Farmers place a bid for what they want to be paid per acre to keep their fields flooded. Sellers with the most reasonable bids and conducive fields are enrolled. The program relies on data from the eBird app, a citizen science project where birders record their sightings for researchers to use in mapping where habitat is most needed.

During the pilot program in 2014, more than 180,000 waterbirds used wetlands created by about 10,000 acres of riceland.

This spring’s program began Feb. 15 and has 17 enrollments for a total of 3,774 acres. (The fall program begins Aug. 15 and typically provides more habitat as this is when there’s very little water on the landscape.) Bird Returns has a “lot more interest and bids from growers than we can accommodate. We do have limited funding,” says Julia Barfield, project manager for the Nature Conservancy’s Migratory Bird Initiative.

Michael Bosworth is a fifth-generation California farmer.

Bosworth has six rice fields currently enrolled: Two conventional fields were flooded for six weeks and four organic fields for eight weeks, until mid-April. Bosworth won’t disclose how much he’s getting paid per acre for Bird Returns, so as not to compromise future auctions, but he considers the program a revenue source. He also has 36 fields enrolled in a staggered drainage program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Every little bit helps, he says: “People wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t making money.”

Collaboration, Not Concession 

The Sacramento Valley is primed for reconciliation ecology. Consider how both waterbirds and salmon were pushed out of their habitat in favor of farming — and how both are now being brought back in again.

But not all conservationists are fans of the reconciliation ecology approach, because they feel it doesn’t go far enough in restoring damaged or destroyed ecosystems. “One of the knocks about reconciliation ecology is that [it must mean] environmentalists are capitulating and it’s all over and we shouldn’t have hope and we’re giving up,” says Carson Jeffres, an aquatic ecologist at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “That’s some of the critique. I would argue [reconciliation ecology] is a realistic view.”

We need to accept that we’re not going to restore floodplains and other systems to their natural state, he argues, because humans have already so fundamentally changed them. But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve individual processes within those systems.

“The Central Valley used to be a vast network of floodplains and wetlands and over 95 percent of that is gone,” says Louise Conrad, a fisheries biologist for the California Department of Water Resources. “That habitat is simply no longer there.” Levees cut off rivers from floodplains, concrete dams were built and wetlands were drained.

John Brennan, a rice farmer at Knaggs Ranch in the Yolo Bypass, has for several years been involved with research into how his land, north of Interstate 5, can benefit Chinook salmon. The Yolo Bypass is the largest floodplain still connected to the Sacramento River, and floodplains provide a much-needed food resource for juvenile salmon on their way to Pacific Ocean, explains Conrad. Due to the still and shallow waters, the concentration of plankton, insects and invertebrates in floodplains is thousands of times greater than in rivers, she says.

DWR is focused on floodplain extension — extending the duration of the short flood events that occur somewhat commonly in the Yolo Bypass. “We want to do this because, typically, floods drain too quickly for fish to derive the food web benefits that are expected on a floodplain,” Conrad says. “We are working with landowners, including at Knaggs Ranch, to delay natural flood waters from draining, thereby extending the period of time fish can reap the benefits of a floodplain.” Since the program is still in its study phase, landowners participate out of an interest in the floodplain-extension research and do not receive financial compensation.

Nicole Montna Van Vleck, CEO of Montna Farms talks about her favorite birds:

 

Scientists launched the related “Nigiri Project” in 2012 to see what would happen when they pumped water into Brennan’s rice fields and added in juvenile salmon, keeping them there for a few weeks before releasing them into the Sacramento River on their way to the ocean.

After four weeks, the scientists measured a sample population of the 10,000 salmon. “We really didn’t know if they would survive or not,” Jeffres says. “Not only did they survive, they grew at the fastest rates ever seen in juvenile salmon anywhere in California.” The fish benefitted from the abundant “bug buffet” in the floodplain, and seemed to have a better chance of reaching the ocean. That experiment involved 6,000 fish in 2016.

The ongoing Nigiri Project, according to Jeffres, is modeled after Bird Returns. “We’re trying to ride on the coattails of the people that show you can have ecosystem services on a human-managed landscape,” he says. “Because we’re never going back, but we can work with the floodplains we have.”

Adding It All Up 

Since 2011, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has invested about $15 million for the development of the local Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program — overseen by the California Rice Commission, the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society and Point Blue Conservation Science — to provide financial assistance directly to landowners to implement enhancements.

One enhancement practice involves keeping water in the fields longer and doing a staggered field drainage. Or farmers can be paid to build small nesting islands that rice grows up around, preventing predators from seeing the protected platforms. Another option involves widening narrow levees for better bird nesting.

On average, the enhancement practices cost about $35 to $40 per acre per year, “which is actually a screaming deal when you’re talking about that kind of habitat,” Buttner says.

WHEP peaked in 2014 with about 100,000 acres enrolled — roughly 25 percent of all California riceland. But a rule attached to the federal funding meant participating growers were timed out of WHEP after three years and unable to participate again. A new federal program has given WHEP the temporary flexibility to allow growers to re-enroll in the same practices for one more three-year period. “However, there is no guarantee that we could do this again because the three-year limit rule is still in place,” Buttner says.

To that end, the rice commission established the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation to attract philanthropic investment from the private sector and secure WHEP’s future. A farmer’s ability to receive financial incentives to cover the cost — and then some — of conservation practices is critical. With the drought having made water more expensive and farmers able to clear out post-harvest debris through other means, there’s been a gradual decline of growers choosing winter flooding. “We’re concerned,” Buttner says.

What would be an alternative to programs like WHEP and Bird Returns? The Ducks Unlimited report estimated it would cost more than $1.5 billion to purchase and restore wetlands in order to replace the wildlife food now provided by rice fields — which provide about 60 percent of bird habitat in California — with wetland-based food. That figure doesn’t include ongoing management costs. So it’s not really much of an alternative at all.

Conserving For the Future

On a sunny morning in late-February, Bosworth walks along a flooded field at Rue & Forsman, as his black labrador, Drake, sprints up ahead and then sprints back again, periodically splashing the edge of the shallow water. “Here comes a flock,” Bosworth says, as hundreds of birds in the sky come toward us in one fluid motion. “That’s my favorite, when they fly like that. It’s so cool.”

The waterbirds in the Sacramento Valley are mainly waterfowl like ducks and geese. There are shorebirds, which migrate all over the world. There are waders such as sandhill cranes and great egrets, two iconic birds of rice due to their large size. Besides the waterbirds, there are winter raptors, of which California’s Central Valley supports among the highest abundance and diversity of any region of North America.

Nicole Montna Van Vleck has made wildlife conservation a priority at Montna Farms, located south of Yuba City.

“We’re not growing a crop out there right now,” Bosworth says, “so it’s great that we can provide an environmental benefit even when we’re not producing on the land.”

About a half-hour drive away, Nicole Van Vleck runs Montna Farms with her parents and sister, Michelle Vogt. The vertically-integrated business grows premium short-grain and medium-grain rice on 5,000 acres and co-owns a mill in Williams where they ship their rice to be milled and marketed worldwide. The business has been involved with several conservation programs, and this winter joined a fish-recovery project conducted by California Trout to examine ways to improve food production for salmon in their fields (the nonprofit Cal Trout is also involved with the Nigiri Project).

“One of our biggest challenges in farming are the restrictions and proposed restrictions on our water due to endangered and threatened fish species,” Van Vleck says. “I feel confident that rice fields can provide food for fish as they have for waterfowl. We can help restore salmon populations by improving their habitat all while continuing the production of food for people and birds.”

Several years ago, Montna Farms secured the first waterfowl-friendly agriculture easement in California; they now have two held by Ducks Unlimited for a total of 1,950 acres. The sisters’ combined six children will be allowed to sell the property after their mothers die, but the land must be used for agriculture in perpetuity and the fields must be flooded every year for migrating waterfowl. They have a similar easement with the Nature Conservancy for 730 acres.

“The easements we’ve done, not too many people do them,” Van Vleck says. They cost money to secure, they put potentially burdensome restrictions on the land and they involve selling off valuable development rights. “We truly believe in it. I don’t think you could do these easements if you don’t believe in the environmental aspects they provide.”

Only about 4 percent of Sacramento Valley farmland is protected by conservation easements that enable or require wildlife-friendly farming. The future of the other 96 percent remains untold. What if some of the region’s rice acreage is lost to drought or developmental pressure? That’s enough to keep conservationists awake at night. For farmers, the answer may lie in incentives that make it financially worthwhile for them to provide habitat, adding more value to their land and reminding society of yet another reason why farmland matters.

On that Friday morning, Van Vleck hears a flock of geese coming in for a landing. “We have days in the winter where we just have thousands of tundra swans and ducks,” she says. “It seems like the swans just swarm this area, and people jump out of their cars with their kids and their cameras.”

Behind Montna Farms’ office building is a viewing area for several flooded fields and mudflats — good for wading birds. “I’m the birder in the family,” Van Vleck says, looking out toward the land, which will soon be growing rice. “My kids laugh at me. But they’re pretty good birders too. I like to track the birds in my bird book.” She raises her binoculars to see if she has indeed spotted a group of pintails swimming in the distance. But they appear to lack tails. “That one is stumping me,” she says. She’ll have to check her guidebook. 

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