Rice producers were sustainable before sustainability was cool.
For 15 to 20 years, the U.S. rice industry has been able to point to a solid record of growing rice in a conservation-minded, environmentally friendly way while providing habitat for millions of ducks and other waterfowl.
But the USA Rice Federation, which represents much of the U.S. rice supply chain from producers to processors, believes U.S. rice can’t rest on its laurels. Instead, the organization has announced a new set of goals to promote sustainability.
The new goals build on a 36-year study titled “The U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report,” compiled and released by the USA Rice Federation in 2018. The report highlighted a number of accomplishments by U.S. rice farmers, including a 28% reduction in soil loss, 34% cut in energy use and water savings of 52%.
“After that study was released, we started looking toward the future,” said Jennifer James, a rice producer from Newport in Jackson County, Ark., who has chaired the USA Rice Sustainability Committee for 10 years. “If we’ve done this well in the past, where are we going? How much can we improve in the future?”
James was one of the speakers for the Rice Agricultural Sustainability Virtual Field Trip, one of a series of such events put together by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and funded by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
USA Rice turned to the “folks who know best,” rice farmers who James called the original conservationists and agricultural researchers who have been working on making rice farmers more sustainable for decades.
“We brainstormed a little bit, and we arrived at the rice industry’s 2030 sustainability goals,” she said. Those include:
- Increasing land use efficiency by 10%;
- Decreasing energy use by 18%;
- Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 13%;
- Decreasing soil loss by 8%; and
- Decreasing water use by 13%.
“Those metrics actually match the Field to Market Indicators Report, but we added one that we all know is very important to the rice industry, which is our biodiversity habitat creation,” she said. “We want to increase that by 10%.
“When you look at waterfowl and ducks and the migration in North America, 20% of that overlays with the rice-growing areas, and that’s no coincidence. To rebuild that habitat would cost about $3.4 billion – habitat we’re already creating in our rice fields. That’s what we’re contributing to those species and their development.”
What can growers do to help meet the industry meet those new goals by 2030? Many flood their fields in the winter to provide habitat for ducks and help with the biodiversity metric, but what else can be done?
“A lot of us have precision-leveled our fields or are in the process of doing so,” she said. “That’s a great way to decrease our soil loss. Maintaining good drainage, our pipe drops, utilizing tailwater recovery will help soil loss. Any conservation tillage that we can implement, cover crops, the use of furrow irrigation in row rice will also help with soil loss and reduce water use.
“To reduce our water use, go back to precision land leveling and MIRI or multiple inlet rice irrigation,” she said, citing an example of using polypipe to increase irrigation efficiency in the field behind her. “Alternate wetting and drying or AWD, row rice irrigation, utilizing tailwater recovery, surface water reservoirs, water-level sensors and maybe even pump automation are all good methods.”
Several of those practices can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, she said. Fertilizer management, including the 4 “Rs” of applying the right source of nutrients at the right rate at the right time and right place, can lower greenhouse gases along with moving from diesel to electric or natural gas pumps where possible.
With energy consumption reducing tillage passes and updating equipment to more energy efficient models can help, she said. “We’re also starting to see a lot of solar panels and solar farms pop up around the state and on buildings alongside grain bins.
“When it comes to land use efficiency, a lot will depend on our rice breeders,” she noted. “We have some awesome public and private rice breeders who are using new technologies such as marker-assisted breeding, CRISPR technology, and we’re going to have to rely on you guys to increase our yields for us.”
James said USA Rice believes farmers and other industry members can meet those goals or even exceed them during the next nine years.
“It’s an exciting time to be a rice farmer,” she said.