Sustainability Report: Land Use and Soil Conservation

Man wearing yellow shirt, sunglasses and ballcap stands in large field of golden rice, palming rice heads
Christian Richard has the sustainability touch
May 16, 2019
Third installment in the series recapping the U.S. Rice Sustainability Report.

ARLINGTON, VA -- U.S. rice farmers have a vested interest in sustainability because they care about the land they cultivate.  They live and work on the acreage that they plan to pass on to future generations, which means preserving the integrity and health of the soil itself so that it can continue to grow rice for decades to come.  The U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report highlights the many technological advances that have allowed rice to become the most efficient major crop when it comes to soil conservation.

Rice is already a crop that’s soil smart.  Due to the unique nature of rice production practices, erosion has not historically been a major problem.  Heavy clay and silt loam soils that are often ill-suited to other crops retain water well, making them perfect for rice.  But just because rice farmers were already the best in the soil business didn’t mean that they couldn’t find ways to improve.  Over the course of the 36-year period covered by the report, soil erosion on U.S. rice farms decreased by 28 percent, and according to the Field to Market 2016 Indicators Report, rice consistently demonstrates the lowest per-acre soil erosion of any major crop.

The first way rice farmers go about conserving soil is simply by using less of it.  As mentioned in the first installment in this series, overall increased efficiency and improved crop yields has led to a 39 percent decrease in planted acres per hundredweight of rice.  Beyond using less land to produce more rice, farmers are also employing new technologies to decrease erosion, retain nutrients, and reduce runoff.

You can’t talk about soil conservation without mentioning water.  Precision land leveling uses GPS and laser-guided earthmoving equipment to create uniform grades and slopes within fields.  This uniformity means less water use and less runoff, which preserves important nutrients within the soil.  Good land leveling practices also achieve sustainability goals by increasing crop yields, improving weed control, and reducing seeding times.

Conservation tillage—in which rice is planted with no or minimal tillage into previous crop residue or a stale seedbed—protects the soil from erosion, loss of nutrients, and salinization.  Keeping organic matter in the soil helps improve soil health, and naturally saves energy and reduces carbon emissions by requiring fewer tractor passes.  

For example, farmers in Missouri, under the National Rice Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), reduced soil losses by 88 percent and prevented 380 dump trucks of soil from entering the waterways by employing conservation tillage and retaining winter rainfall.

Of course, much of this effort would not be possible without the support of programs, such as RCPP, offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  Louisiana rice farmer Christian Richard participates in the NRCS Gulf of Mexico Initiative, which seeks to improve water quality in the Gulf.  Richard uses a variety of sustainable techniques throughout his operation, including precision leveling, conservation tillage, and a state-of-the-art tailwater recovery system.  Using water efficiently holds the soil on his farm in place, minimizing erosion and nutrient loss.

“U.S. farmers should not be afraid to tell their story,” said Richard.  “We are being productive while conserving natural resources and maintaining the safest food supply in the world.  It’s important to leave the land better than it was before.”  

Soil and water go hand in hand, and the next installment in this series on the U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report will focus on the many improvements in water use and quality rice farmers have achieved since 1980.

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