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Rice Farming and Ducks: A Winning Partnership

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By Al Montna, family rice farmer, Montna Farms in Sutter County

This time of the year holds special significance, as we have finished our rice harvest and are enjoying the return of millions of ducks and geese to the flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley.

Conservation is at the heart of rice farming, and working in partnership with groups such as Ducks Unlimited will ensure we maintain this paradise for wildlife well into the future.

I’ve been a DU member for more than 40 years. To me, this organization is absolutely necessary to sustain waterfowl populations in North America. No other organization invests the resources or has the success working nationally in waterfowl management issues as does DU.

Conservation is as much a part of the culture at Montna Farms as farming. It’s something we take account of every day, and the results are equally as enjoyable as an abundant rice harvest. If we can stay profitable farming rice, then we have the resources to invest in conservation. Helping maintain healthy duck populations has its rewards and is a sight I look forward to each fall and winter. What’s more, if we enhance our habitat for waterfowl, scores of other species benefit as well including shorebirds, wading birds, raptors and even Giant Garter Snakes.

Our farm property also houses the Dingville Duck and Social Club. In operation since 1970, it’s a significant part of our business plan as it showcases the results of our conservation practices and serves as a respite for the outdoors enthusiasts and a valuable field study site for conservation researchers from Audubon California and PRBO Conservation Science.

California rice growers are good stewards of their resources. The vast majority of the crop is grown in the Sacramento Valley, an underappreciated part of the state. After harvest, rice straw is incorporated into the soil and fields are flooded with five inches of water – a combination that’s perfectly timed and suited for the massive waterfowl migrations along the Pacific Flyway. In fact, this setting for wintering waterfowl is so good here that 60 percent of total Pacific Flyway populations winter right here in the Sacramento Valley. Winter travelers along Highway 99 in the North State have undoubtedly seen this showcase for waterfowl near our farm and others throughout the region.

A recent study by DU demonstrates the value California rice fields have for ducks. Researchers found that if half of the Sacramento Valley rice acreage is not planted for whatever reason, there would be 1.2 million fewer ducks. This isn’t a scenario any rice grower wants. Farmers want to farm and they value their role in helping sustain a healthy ecosystem. However, this study gives insight to why rice farming in the Sacramento Valley yields benefits beyond one of California’s top crops, 25,000 jobs and $1.8 billion to the state’s economy each year.

Moving forward, I hope the strong ties between rice farming and Ducks Unlimited continue. The foresight from both parties will help deliver a most successful combination: successful rice farms and healthy waterbird populations for years to come.

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