U.S. rice farmers have reduced the amount of water they use to irrigate their crops by 52 percent since the 1980s. They’ve also reduced soil erosion in their fields by 28 percent and increased land use efficiency by 39 percent.
Those are facts you don’t often hear in discussions about agriculture and the environment. But it’s information the USA Rice Federation hopes to disseminate more and more frequently, according to Lydia Holmes, manager for industry affairs and sustainability at USA Rice.
“We’ve known for years that the U.S. rice industry has a really good story to tell – you provide habitat for ducks, and you’re looking for ways to use water more efficiently,” she said. “We knew this was going on, but we didn’t quite have the story put together and all the numbers put together.”
Holmes, a speaker at the Mississippi County, Ark., Rice Irrigation Field Day, was “the architect of a sustainability report that she worked on for almost a year,” said Josh Hankins, director of grower relations and the Rice Stewardship Partnership for USA Rice, who introduced Holmes at the field day.
In 2017, the USA Rice Foundation, USA Rice, and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service began discussing the possibility of writing such a report to help tell rice’s environmental story.
“We’ve now completed the report, so I’m going to talk about some of the numbers in there, and the way we got those numbers,” she said. “Since the 1980s, we know we’ve seen increases in yields for multiple reasons. “That goes into this number of a land use efficiency increase of 39 percent.”
Soil erosion is another area where rice farmers have seen reductions. “Rice is one of the best crops for soil erosion out of all the row crops,” she said. “A lot of that has to do with the types of soil rice is grown on, but it also has to do with the types of practices farmers have been using – such as conservation tillage or minimum tillage and some of the land-forming you’ve done.”
Reductions in water use have been responsible for one of the largest decreases in rice’s impact on the environment with consumption down 52 percent since the 1980s. Water use was also a major topic at the Rice Irrigation Field Day, which was held at Florenden Farms, a rice and soybean operation owned by Mike Sullivan and his son, Ryan Sullivan.
“Growing rice with a shallow flood, using things like polypipe and multiple inlet rice irrigation or MIRI, alternate wetting and drying or AWD, row rice and tailwater recovery systems have all contributed,” she said.
“I know there have been discussions on whether furrow-irrigated rice or row rice have been responsible for huge water savings, but it can be at times. These are all areas where we are hoping to see more increases in efficiency, not only for your bottom lines but for the overall environmental impact, as well.”