|"Why is that farmer driving his tractor through water and what's that thing he's towing?"
If you don't grow rice for a living, or live near the rice fields, these are logical questions. A decade ago, a Los Angeles resident might traverse the state's 570,000 acres of rice fields, and not see a tractor pulling a roller across a flooded field.
A decade ago, that tourist might see billowing smoke rising from blackened fields, and the evening news would carry reports of unhealthy air and warnings to people with asthma and other sensitive conditions to avoid outdoor activity.
In the "good old days" the rice straw was burned, a habit the California Legislature said should be phased out, and replaced with more environmentally friendly practices.
That legislative mandate, combined with the value of rice fields as winter habitat for waterfowl, led Ducks Unlimited, Inc. (DU) in 1992 to join with the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the J. M. Long Foundation, the Regional Resource Conservation Districts and the Butte County Farm Bureau.
Together, these groups demonstrated the viability, and practicality, of winter flooding of rice fields, coupled with the practice of rolling and crushing rice straw into the ground to hasten its decomposition.
When this program was launched, DU talked with 50 rice growers who planted 13,330 acres that year. The growers were receptive, and that first winter 7,168 acres were flooded and rolled. The waste rice and shallow waters provided an irresistible banquet for migratory waterfowl.
During the winter of 1999-2000, 137,081 acres of rice straw were flooded and 49,210 acres were flooded and rolled. DU, through its Valley/Bay CARE initiative, contacted 201 growers representing 223,218 acres of rice. Overall, winter flooding has created a temporary seasonal habitat across 591,150 acres of rice fields and the rolling technique has been applied to 240,386 acres.
Waste rice that remains in the field after harvest is a banquet for the birds, and the flooded rice fields each year attract thousands of ducks, geese and swans. Neo-tropical migrating birds, wading birds and shore birds flock to these seasonal food-rich waters.
The magnitude of the DU effort can be illustrated by noting that in 1990, the Central Valley Habitat Joint Venture estimated there was a scant 295,000 acres of wetland habitat remaining in this all-important region of the Pacific Flyway. The willingness of rice growers to flood 137,081 acres creates a harmony of free enterprise profitability and environmental responsibility.
The winners are the farmers, the economy, conservation of resources, and the more than 600 species that live, feed and breed in the wetlands habitat to survive.
Reprinted from Ducks Unlimited, Inc.; Valley Bay CARE.
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