The driest year California has experienced since the 1970s will have wide-ranging impacts in the West.
In the Sacramento Valley, a reduced water supply will lead to about a 20 percent reduction in rice plantings.
The loss of about 100,000 acres of rice fields has implications well beyond the farm level. The reduced plantings will impact rural communities that depend on agriculture as their foundation. It’s also a concern for wildlife, which greatly depend on rice fields for their habitat.
Fortunately, rice growers are collaborating with conservation groups to get the most out of what’s available.
“Over the last 150 years, over 90 percent of the wetlands that used to be in the Central Valley have gone,” remarked Julia Barfield, Project Manager with The Nature Conservancy. “They’ve been lost to development and agriculture, and there’s a shortage of habitat that birds migrating along the Pacific flyway need. And that is wetland habitat, specifically shallow wetlands for migratory shorebirds, which is a group of species that have declined precipitously in the last 50 years. And we are working hard to make sure there’s enough habitat, especially in years like this that are really dry — and there’s not going to be much habitat on the landscape when they’re migrating this fall.”
The Nature Conservancy has spearheaded two key rice conservation programs, BirdReturns and Bid4Birds, which have helped during past droughts.
“What we’ve found in the last drought,2013 to 2015, which was a critical period, was that the incentive programs, such as BirdReturns, provided 35 percent of the habitat that was out there on the landscape and up to 60 percent in the fall period during certain days,” said Greg Golet, a scientist at The Nature Conservancy who has spent years working to maintain and enhance shorebird habitat in Sacramento Valley rice fields.
This cooperation wouldn’t be possible without rice growers being willing participants. For decades, rice fields have provided a vital link to the massive Pacific Flyway migration of millions of birds.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years now, every farmer that I know is an environmentalist at some level,” said rice grower John Brennan, who works at several places in the valley, including Davis Ranches in Colusa. “We’re the ones that are out there in the environment. We’re the ones that get to enjoy the birds. We’re the ones that get to see habitat and all the excitement that it brings to the landscape. But on the other side of it, we need to make sure that rice stays relevant in the state of California. And so, we’re not going to be able to maintain this habitat, as habitat. There’s not enough money in the state of California to do that. We need to come up with a farming program that does both, that provides food and provides habitat.”
As summer approaches, the value of rice field habitat – especially during drought — will grow right along with America’s next crop of sushi rice.
The rice fields, complete with their diverse ecosystem, are a welcome sight to Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, who has worked on several fronts to bolster such conservation.
“It makes me feel relieved,” she said. “It makes me feel like there’s hope. It makes me feel like there’s the beauty that we have all around us in Northern California — and then to appreciate every single moment of it, and not to take away, but to help enhance what we have and to continue it for our future.”
CBS 13 Newscaster: The drought impacting much more than how you water your lawn, but the way food is grown in the Sacramento Valley. CBS 13’s, Rachel Wulff shows us the changes to a multi-billion-dollar industry that supports 25,000 jobs.
Fritz Durst: Farmers are eternal optimists. You have to be, to risk so much with so many things out of your control.
Rachel Wulff: Fritz Durst, trying to keep his spirits up in a down year.
Jim Morris: The past year plus has been difficult for our world, and now a significant new challenge has hit much of the west. Precious little rain and snow fell during fall and winter, leading to the driest year California has seen in generations.
As a result, there will be less rice grown in the Sacramento Valley this year. That has wide ranging impacts, including to birds that migrate along the Pacific flyway. But as the newly planted rice emerges and more birds arrive, there’s at least a momentary lift during this difficult time.
Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris. I’ve worked with California farmers and ranchers for more than 30 years helping tell their stories. I’m at the historic Davis Ranches in Colusa, and even though drought has taken out about 20 percent of normal rice acreage, it is a beautiful time in our valley and an important one as well. Julia Barfield has been with the Nature Conservancy since 2010. After her undergraduate degree in English Literature and German, her early career was in publishing and editing, and then she made a big shift getting her graduate degree in biology with thesis work, including a field endocrinology and behavioral study on a nocturnal endangered species in a very remote field station in a desert grassland environment.
And Julia, you need to go back to publishing after you write that book because I’ll buy two copies of it, it sounds like a wonderful book. So we went from pandemic to drought and that is certainly challenging for protecting the environment, but let’s start with something positive being out here in the country. What are your thoughts when you’re in and around the rice fields and you see all the wildlife?
Julia Barfield: Oh, it’s so refreshing to get out, up here in the rice fields. And there’s such a diversity of birds and we’re out here today on Davis Ranches, and you can hear bird song in the background, and it’s just such a release after being cooped up in the last year.
Jim Morris: The Nature Conservancy has been contributing to this effort for many years, as well as some other conservation partners, and we’re very grateful for that. So why is the Nature Conservancy using its time and expertise and resources to help wildlife in rice fields?
Julia Barfield: Well Jim, over the last 150 years, over 90 percent of the wetlands that used to be in the Central Valley are gone. They’ve been lost to development and agriculture, and there’s a shortage of habitat that birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway need. And that is wetland habitat, specifically shallow wetlands for migratory shorebirds, which is a species that has declined precipitously in the last 50 years. And we are working hard to make sure there’s enough habitat, especially in years like this that are really dry and there’s not going to be much habitat on the landscape when they’re migrating this fall.
Jim Morris: The Nature Conservancy has two specific programs they’ve worked with regarding rice farming and the environment. Tell me about those.
Julia Barfield: Back in 2014 during the last drought, we developed a program called BirdReturns. I just mentioned that there’s been a huge loss in habitat in wetlands, in the Central Valley. And during migration season, which is early fall and late spring for migratory shorebirds, there’s often few places for them to stop and rest and feed on migrations that can go anywhere from Alaska down to Patagonia. So these birds are long distance fliers and they need to refuel along the way. And so, to make up this habitat shortfall, we developed this program called BirdReturns, where we work with growers to flood their fields for a few weeks at a time during the most critical times of year. And we call these pop-up wetlands. And another way to talk about it is we often refer to them as an Airbnb for birds.
Jim Morris: And now there’s a Bid4Birds. So tell me a little bit about that.
Julia Barfield: So, the Nature Conservancy is part of a formal partnership with two other conservation organizations, Point Blue Conservation Science and Audubon, California. And we are working closely with the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation to create a BirdReturns like program called Bid4Birds. It’s the same kind of concept where we ask growers to submit bids to participate in the program, and we select growers who have the best quality habitat for the lowest price.
Jim Morris: Tell me a little bit about working with growers, that’s obviously a key element to make sure these programs are successful.
Julia Barfield: Yes, the growers are a key component and since the beginning of doing burn returns, we work closely with the rice community and rice growers have been close partners for us. And the idea is that this is a win-win approach. So, by working with the growers, we are able to help promote their long term farming operations and also create habitat for birds. And we are kind of both an organization, if you will, where we want to have benefits for both people and nature, and rice growers are a very important part of this work.
Jim Morris: Also here on the farm is Greg Golet, who has a PhD in Biology and an MS in Marine Sciences, and you spent time in Alaska with the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a wildlife biologist studying seabirds, sounds fascinating. And what type of birds did you study, and tell me a little bit about that Alaska experience.
Greg Golet: I went up to go to Alaska after finishing college in Maine, because I wanted to go to one of the wildest places I could possibly find and do research biology. And there I studied blackleg kitty wakes and then pigeon guillemots out in beautiful Prince William Sound.
Jim Morris: How long were you in Alaska and what was the most unusual thing that you saw, because Alaska is a very unusual place?
Greg Golet: They say you judge your time in Alaska based on the number of winters that you spend there. And I will confess that early on, I was going to Alaska for field research and then returning to warm Santa Cruz for grad school. But I did put in four and a half winters there before heading back to Northern California. The wildest thing I think that I ever saw in Alaska was out at my field camp, which was tucked up in a fjord with a tidewater glacier at the head. The snow melted out beneath an avalanche cone and exposed this bear that had been taken out by a slide in the winter. And over the days we would go there and look at the various animals feeding upon it, including wolverines.
Jim Morris: Oh, my goodness, Julia has a second book, she’s going to need to work on too. So that’s pretty amazing. And the rice ecosystem, doesn’t have what you just described, but it is very diverse, and I think surprising to people. So tell me a little bit about your time in the rice ecosystem and some of the things that you’ve seen.
Greg Golet: In Alaska, it was incredible because I had these remote experiences out in wild country where I saw incredible nature spectacles. But in the rice landscape, we see that as well. What’s interesting to me about it, is that here it’s a human dominated, managed, highly altered ecosystem. As Julia was mentioning, 90 percent of the historic wetlands are lost, and what’s here is all tightly controlled with water allocations and specific management practices. But yet, when you do things right, you can see incredible responses of wildlife in spectacles, really as powerful as those that I had in Alaska with fields absolutely teaming with shorebirds. And of course the huge goose populations and so forth.
Jim Morris: Let’s talk a little bit about shorebirds. Rice fields provide internationally recognized shorebird habitat, and tell me some of the species that you’ve seen out here.
Greg Golet: Well, we’ve seen many different species out here, and I’ll tell you about a couple that I find to be extremely interesting. One is the Western Sandpiper and another is the Dunlin. And they’re pretty similar, when you look at them, especially to the untrained eye, they might look just like these little brown birds. The Western Sandpiper only weighs about an ounce and the Dunlin isn’t much bigger. Both of them breed up in the Arctic. Dunlin have a circumpolar distribution, whereas the Western Sandpipers are more just out on western Alaska, out by the Bering Sea. But what’s really interesting and different about them, is that they have strikingly different patterns of migration. And so what that means is that when they head south for the winter, which both of them do, the timing is different. And so, the Dunlin typically come down, not until October, and then they spend the winter in the Central Valley and the rice country is extremely important to them.
Whereas the Western Sandpiper comes down early. They come down, they peak in July when they move through the central valley on their way south, and then they don’t come back until April. So there’s really hardly any overlap between these two species out in the field. And what that means for us as conservationists, and what we really have to pay attention to, is that we can provide habitat over that broad range of time so that we can meet the dependencies of both of these species.
Jim Morris: I find those shorebirds very interesting too, because I think almost every time I’ve seen them, they’re eating. So they feed out of the rice fields as well as a place to rest. And so we are unfortunately in a drought situation. So how valuable are the rice fields in a year like this?
Greg Golet: Rice field habitat is phenomenally important to these birds in droughts, as well as in regular years. What we’ve found in the last drought 2013 to 2015, which was a critical period, was that the incentive programs, such as BirdReturns, provided 35 percent of the habitat that was out there on the landscape and up to 60 percent in the fall period during certain days.
Jim Morris: We’ve seen these dry years before, so do you have a degree of optimism that we’re going to get past this, at some point?
Greg Golet: I absolutely do. One of the things that we have on our side is that this is a highly managed system. And so therefore we can pull the levers that we need to, to put the habitat out there, where and when it will be most valuable to the birds. And what we also have now is this emerging science that tells us specifically what the habitat needs are and therefore where to best place them for maximum return on investment.
Jim Morris: Essentially the Pacific flyway, that massive migration of millions of birds, even if we have a drought, you can’t take a year off in terms of giving them the habitat in the Central Valley, right?
Greg Golet: When these birds stop in here, it’s likely that they need to replenish their reserves rapidly. They need time to rest. They need to have the time with their other members of the flock to establish the social connections that they do at these stopover sites. Or they need to just have the opportunity to set up for an extended period as they overwinter.
Jim Morris: John Brennan is a rice grower, farm manager, Ag Business Management graduate from Cal-Poly, and one of those who has embraced wildlife friendly farming. John, why go the extra steps to help wildlife?
John Brennan: I’ve been doing this for 40 years now, every farmer that I know is an environmentalist at some level. And we’re the ones that are out there in the environment. We’re the ones that get to enjoy the birds. We’re the ones that get to see habitat and all the excitement that it brings to the landscape. But on the other side of it, we need to make sure that rice stays relevant in the state of California. And so we’re not going to be able to maintain this habitat, as habitat, there’s not enough money in the state of California to do that. We need to come up with a farming program that does both, that provides food and provides habitat.
Jim Morris: And it is amazing any time of the year, but particularly in the fall and winter, the staggering amount of wildlife that are in rice fields. Is it something that you’re used to? Is it still pretty impressive when you drive by and you see tens of thousands of geese in a field?
John Brennan: Oh yeah. I don’t think you’ll ever get used to it, especially when they lift off. And then I think the one thing that we talk about is when we first started talking to the migratory bird partnership, they would quiz us or quiz our growers because we manage a lot of different farm land, if we see shorebirds out there. And I would say, “Well, we see Killdeer.” And I didn’t realize that everything that we thought was a Killdeer, was a lot of different shorebirds, right? We just didn’t recognize the difference. And now 10 years later, most of our growers have bird cards and can identify different birds, and they can tell you exactly where they see those birds, right?
John Brennan: Those birds are in one inch of water. Those birds are in mudflats. Those birds are in fields with deeper water. When we give the Bird Day out here at Davis Ranches, we’ve gone to a flooding program that we just fill up the field. So we fill it up fairly deep, 8 to 10 inches, and then we just shut it off and go to the next field and let it kind of draw down. So when you’re out there at Bird Day, you’ll see fields that are swans, pelicans, egrets, and then the next field, it’ll be geese. And then the next field, it’ll be ducks and the next field will be shorebirds. And the next field will be the little shorebirds. And you can just follow them around based on the depth of the water.
Jim Morris: Oh, that is awesome. And those who love Japanese cuisine know Nigiri is fish over rice. And the Nigiri Project is a little different. It’s an innovative way to help salmon. This project with Cal Trout has been around for a long time and it has yielded promising results. So how can rice fields help salmon?
John Brennan: So, this whole discussion about getting fish out of the river onto the floodplain started in the late nineties. So the idea was we’d get more fish out of the river and onto the floodplain. And so, we actually bought the Knaggs Ranch to do the science out there. When they were talking about getting fish out of the Sacramento River and onto the floodplain, in the old bypass, all of the discussions were to put them over seasonal wetland habitat. And our argument was that, “Hey, we’re in the rice business, these are the surrogate wetlands. We really just farm rice in the off season, the exciting season’s the winter. There’s no reason that the fish wouldn’t do the same over rice fields in the winter that they do over seasonal wetland habitat.”
John Brennan: We named it then the Nigiri Project just to keep rice in the discussion, because we were going to do all the science on rice fields, and we didn’t want people to forget about the rice, that’s why we named it, the Nigiri Project. And so what the project has really shown is that when you get water out there on the floodplain, even though it’s been farmed to rice, we still maintain all of those same benefits or can establish, or can garner all those same benefits that you get out there over the traditional floodplain.
Jim Morris: And I know that with our Pilot Project at the Rice Commission, that we’re also working with UC Davis and Cal Trout, very encouraging results. And there’s also growing fish food in the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley and returning that to the river. So very exciting work for salmon. And hopefully there will be progress there, and rice fields will be able to serve salmon just like they are birds right now. So it’s a great time for the environment, when you look at Sacramento Valley rice fields. And on that subject, what do you think the future is for wildlife friendly farming in the Sacramento valley?
John Brennan: I think for the rice world, there’s a tremendous amount of promise.
Jim Morris: We’ve been talking about helping out, not only growing the crop, which supports a lot of different communities and infrastructure in the Sacramento Valley, there’s also the environmental needs, birds and fish. So it’s a pretty big juggling act this year, I would imagine considering we have a drought.
John Brennan: This year, it started off dry and it stayed dry. And so we have all of these environmental conditions that we want to meet on our farm with flooding and some of the habitat that we create and provide here. But then also in the river system where our water supplies are dependent on meeting certain environmental factors with the cold water pool and flows and everything else, and so navigating that and being part of that discussion. But we’re rotating out of rice on about 20 percent of our acreage and that complicates things. And that a lot of this is contracted, we have a lot of specialty varieties out here, we’re moving fields around. And not knowing exactly which fields are going to have water and which fields aren’t going to have water, is also a complex issue for most of the mills to stay up on.
And then we have the infrastructure. I mean, we own the dryer there in Robbins. We’re going to be at about probably two-thirds capacity. Most of the mills are probably going to be at about two-thirds to 80 percent capacity. And so, keeping the industry healthy and then serving all of our clients, I mean, people buy this rice every year and once we lose out on markets or don’t supply rice to the markets, they go somewhere else. And then if there’s water next year and we’re in business again next year, we have to go out and try and get those markets back again. It’s a roller coaster ride and there’s more than just the fields to think about.
Jim Morris: We’re at Conaway Ranch in Yolo County and California Waterfowl Association just released Mallard ducks. They’re trying to maintain and enhance that population. Assemblymember, Cecilia Aguiar-Curry is out here. How important are rice fields to help the whole process of preserving our environment, particularly in a year like this, where water is so short?
Cecilia Aguiar-Curry: Well, the importance I think is just that number one is that after we collect the eggs and they grow and our little ducks grow, there’s got to be a place for them to go into the water. And today we just released them into the water, but I’m concerned that with the drought, if our rice farmers are going to be able to do that, and to help us during this period of time. But that’s why winter flooded rice is so important.
Jim Morris: And in Northern California, in the Sacramento Valley, in particular, when you see that wildlife in the rice fields, all the birds, how does it make you feel?
Cecilia Aguiar-Curry: It makes me feel relieved. It makes me feel like there’s hope. It makes me feel like there’s the beauty that we have all around us in Northern California and then to appreciate every single moment of it, and not to take away, but to help enhance what we have and to continue it for our future.
Jim Morris: That wraps up this episode. Thank you to CBS 13 Sacramento for granting us use of an excerpt and the rice coverage. And thank you to our interviewees, Assemblymember, Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, Julia Barfield and Greg Golet with the Nature Conservancy and rice grower, John Brennan. You can find out much more information about California rice, including a link to all of the podcast episodes, and you can also find a special page we’ve set up with the latest on impacts of the ongoing drought. All of that, and more are at calrice.org, that’s calrice.org. Thanks for listening.