Sustainability Report: Enhancing Biodiversity

Closeup of Yellow Rail being held in someone
What's a Yellow Rail in the hand worth
Jun 06, 2019
Another in our series highlighting the U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report

ARLINGTON, VA -- Rice, by nature, is an aquatic plant.  Before it was cultivated thousands of years ago, it grew wild in wet, marshy areas rich in biodiversity.  Today, rice fields are a crucial refuge for many species of birds, fish, amphibians, and even mammals who have lost their habitat to development and coastal erosion, providing approximately 700,000 acres that nature conservationists would be loath to see growing other crops.  Replacing these rice fields with managed wetlands would cost the government over $3.5 billion dollars, but rice farmers are happy to share their land with their many seasonal visitors, and go out of their way to make them feel at home.  

Migrating waterfowl and shorebirds make up the bulk of rice’s vast habitat contributions.  More than half of all North America’s ducks and waterfowl winter in one of three geographical rice-growing regions—the California Central Valley, the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, and the Mississippi Alluvial Valley—and the insects, plants, and aquatic life on the flooded rice fields of these areas provide ample food for the birds’ journey.  The three regions combined support more than 110 species of wildlife.

Rice and birds is an elegant partnership—while rice farmers provide essential habitat for birds, birds help farmers by improving soil nutrients, eating pests, and aiding straw decomposition—so it makes sense that many of the rice industry’s strongest partnerships have developed from this dynamic.  Ducks Unlimited joined with USA Rice in 2013 through the Rice Stewardship Partnership (RSP) to restore habitats and waterfowl populations while increasing conservation and sustainability on the farm.

A love for waterfowl brings farmers and wildlife conservationists together on common ground.  Every November, Louisiana rice farmer Kevin Berken, his wife Shirley, and ornithologists from Louisiana State University host the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival.  An annual gathering of bird-watchers, conservationists, and rice growers, the festival offers attendees the chance to spot a rare and elusive little marsh bird known as the Yellow Rail, considered a “lifer” on many bird enthusiasts’ lists.  Participants learn about the rice industry and its commitment to sustainability, while also enjoying Cajun food and music.  Because sustainability isn’t all about hard work—sometimes it’s about making connections and having fun.

Kevin Norton, acting associate chief for conservation at the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS), recognizes how important events like this are.  "Some people have a negative view of production agriculture, but the beauty of this kind of event is that when they come out here and see farmers taking care of the land, producing high quality food in a sustainable fashion, conserving water and reducing inputs, and then they get to see the wildlife, it provides a better connection to how production agriculture is contributing to the overall health of the environment.”

Rice farms are also an important habitat for aquatic creatures.  Louisiana produces 90 percent of the nation’s crawfish in flooded rice fields, supporting state and local economies.  In California, much progress has been made in a cutting-edge experiment to grow out salmon fingerlings in rice fields before they swim out to the ocean.  With a team of scientists and a grant from the NRCS, a $1.4 million project is underway to determine the viability of helping young Chinook salmon grow into adulthood in rice fields, and while the experiment is only beginning, initial trials are promising.

Providing vast habitats for such a wide range of wildlife is one of the U.S. rice industry’s most important achievements in sustainability.  As stewards of the land, air, and water they utilize, rice farmers take this responsibility seriously.  Check out the U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report  for details on the many partnerships, contributions, and efforts made by rice farmers to enhance biodiversity.