Arkansas rice farmers manage for ducks and rice

Father and son Mike and Ryan Sullivan are working with USA Rice, Ducks Unlimited and NRCS to enhance habitat and farm sustainability.

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Ryan and Mike Sullivan pulling boards and draining fields after completing the waterfowl flooding practices for the RCPP.

Photo © Bob Young

Mike Sullivan, who farms with his son, Ryan, near Burdette in northeast Arkansas, is one of the rice producers working with USA Rice and Ducks Unlimited through the Rice Stewardship Partnership. The Sullivans have participated in the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) for Rice Stewardship. 

As part of their participation, the Sullivans flooded fields in the winter to provide habitat for waterfowl and improve water quality. By putting boards in their water control structures in October, they captured rainfall over the winter. That gives the sediments and nutrients in the water time to settle out before running off of the field. When they pulled their boards to drain the fields in February, much cleaner water ran off. In the meantime, they had tremendous use by waterfowl. 

“I've never seen ducks east of Interstate 55 before,” Mike said. He was skeptical about attracting ducks in that area of the county, but he was excited to call Ryan one day and tell him that a field near the home place was covered up with ducks. 

“The public has noticed that more ducks are in the county, too,” Mike said. Mike has people asking about his flooded fields and commenting on seeing all the ducks. The weir boxes make all the difference. “The system that works for rice farming also works great for waterfowl,” Mike said. 

Ryan has always been interested in conservation. He told his dad for years they didn’t have ducks because they didn’t hold water on the fields. He observed other areas of the county that had ducks where fields had been flooded. “Ryan has been doing waterfowl management on a small scale, but the RCPP has allowed him to do this on a wider scale,” Mike said. 

“I’m really appreciative of the way the DU, USA Rice and NRCS have partnered to make this program so successful and how easy it has been to work with all the partners,” Mike said. 

Mike said he believes he has also benefitted from working with researchers with the University of Arkansas and the USDA Agricultural Research Service at nearby Arkansas State University. 

“We’ve pretty well turned over 1,500 to 2,000 acres of our rice farming operation for research to Dr. Michele Reba and Dr. Joe Massey at the ARS Delta Water Management Research Unit located on campus at Arkansas State,” he said. “They’re taking small-scale research to a whole-farm approach. Dr. Reba likes to refer to Ryan and I as her guinea pigs. 

“We’re happy to cooperate because I think the key to what we’re trying to do is to be proactive instead of reactive,” he said. I went to the (Arkansas Soil and Water) Education Conference in Jonesboro, and they spent a whole day talking about how water is a finite resource, and we’ve got to figure out a way to do things differently than we have in the past.” 

The Sullivans recognize that water conservation will become increasingly important in the years ahead. 

“If we’re not in the forefront of this, cooperating with the researchers and helping them, we’re going to have problems,” Mike noted. “I hate to think of Ryan having to deal with regulators telling him he has 20 inches of water, and he has to figure out a way to make it work.” 

The Sullivans have also worked with alternate wetting and drying on their farm. “It’s almost become comical with us because for years we told our employees they had to make sure they kept a flood on our rice fields. So you can imagine the reaction when you tell them not to turn on the irrigation pump for 10 days.”

Rice Stewardship funders include the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Walmart Foundation, the Mosaic Company Foundation, Chevron U.S.A., Freeport-McMoRan Foundation, Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, RiceTec, BASF, American Rice, Inc. – Riviana Foods, Inc., Delta Plastics, Wells Fargo, Farmers Rice Milling Company, Horizon Ag, Turner’s Creek & Bombay Hook Farms, MacDon Industries, Dow AgroSciences and Ducks Unlimited major sponsors.