Conservation: Rice Stewardship

Working together to conserve rice lands, water, and wildlife

© Michael Peters

By Josh Hankins and Scott Manley, Ph.D.

Rice is a vital crop both for people and for waterfowl. In fact, rice is the most important grain in regard to human nutrition, providing more than one-fifth of the calories consumed by people worldwide. Likewise, rice is one of the most important food resources for waterfowl in our highest-priority waterfowl wintering areas: the Central Valley of California, the Gulf Coast, and the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Flooded rice fields provide more than one-third of the calories available to wintering waterfowl in these regions. With the rice industry playing such a vital role in supporting North America's waterfowl, we can certainly agree that "what's good for rice is good for ducks."

Nearly 3 million acres of rice will be harvested this fall in the United States, yielding 11 million tons of grain with an at-farm value of $2.7 billion. Half of this year's crop will be shipped overseas to feed the world's growing human population. The other half will be consumed here at home as table rice and as a component of breakfast cereals, beer, pet food, and a variety of other products. As winter approaches, many rice producers prepare their fields for another group of consumers—waterfowl, shorebirds, and other wading birds. The same in-field structures used to manage water for growing rice are kept intact to hold shallow water throughout winter. Here birds find not only waste grain that was left behind during the harvest, but also aquatic insects and vital wetland habitat.

To strengthen the natural partnership between rice agriculture and waterfowl conservation, USA Rice Federation and Ducks Unlimited formed the Rice Stewardship Partnership in 2013. USA Rice is the national nonprofit trade association for the rice industry, with engaged membership, including producers, millers, merchants, and allied industries such as rice product manufacturers, in all six rice-producing states. This partnership was built on the knowledge that working together allows both the rice industry and DU to magnify conservation impacts that are vital to the future of rice production and wetland habitat. The partnership is powered by a multidisciplinary staff of agronomists, agriculture irrigation engineers, wildlife biologists, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)−trained program administrators. Working in concert with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and our leading financial sponsors, we have built a solid foundation for collaboration and conservation impact.

Rice Stewardship implements strategies in policy, public relations, and on-the-ground conservation with the goal of strengthening the rice industry and ensuring that these working wetlands will continue to provide important habitat benefits for waterfowl and other wildlife. "Drought challenges, water shortages, and escalating land competition have been a priority focus for the rice industry in California and Texas since 2010," says Al Montna, a California rice producer, miller, and cochairman of the Rice Stewardship Steering Committee. "Without policy and public relations efforts to secure water for the future, both rice and waterfowl will face dire consequences." 

In southwest Louisiana, challenges from unpredictable weather, less productive soils, and increased weed and pest pressures make it difficult to maintain a positive bottom line. Therefore, in this region Rice Stewardship focuses on farm improvements and management practices to reduce input costs and make operations more efficient. According to Jeff Durand, Louisiana rice producer and steering committee cochairman, "Rice farming has become a 12-months-a-year operation for us, starting with the first rice crop, followed by what we call a ratoon crop [second crop], and then moving into crawfish aquaculture through the next spring." 


Photo ©

In Arkansas's rice country, the biggest challenge is groundwater availability and declining aquifers. Irrigation efficiency is key in eastern Arkansas, where the concentration of rice acres is unparalleled and where almost 50 percent of the U.S. rice crop will be produced this year. "We've got to put irrigation systems in place that allow us to grow a rice crop with less water while also saving energy and time," says Jeff Rutledge, Arkansas rice producer and steering committee member.

Rice Stewardship would not be as progressive or as impactful without the leadership of the NRCS and the support of our leading financial sponsors. NRCS conservation programs are the foundation of all our projects, and supply-chain sponsors have helped us put the boots on the ground needed to make things happen. Many large corporations are adopting conservation and sustainability goals as part of their operations, reducing their environmental footprint, supporting community resilience, and conserving natural resources such as clean and plentiful water. We are proud to have the largest fertilizer company in the world, The Mosaic Company, and the largest retailer in the world, Walmart, supporting our Rice Stewardship efforts. That clearly demonstrates the industry-wide support we're receiving. We invite all other rice supply-chain corporations to join us in this progressive agricultural sustainability effort.

Rice plays a special and unique role on planet Earth. It is a crucial food staple for people worldwide, and rice lands provide vital habitat for waterfowl wintering in DU's highest-priority landscapes. U.S. rice producers are special and unique as well. They work the land to produce food for a hungry world, carefully manage the soil and water resources that support us all, and provide waterfowl and other wetland wildlife places to feed, rest, and call home. Recent research conducted by DU scientists showed that the total cost of replacing all winter-flooded rice habitats in the United States with restored native wetlands would approach $3.5 billion. In addition, rice producers invest more than $70 million each year in managing rice lands for waterfowl. 

Put simply, without winter-flooded rice lands, we would be unable to meet the objectives of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. We recognize the need to keep this industry on the landscape for rice growers, rural communities, people, and wildlife, and Rice Stewardship is here to help them all be more resilient. Indeed, what's good for rice is good for ducks. 

Dr. Scott Manley is a director of conservation programs in DU's Southern Region. Josh Hankins is USA Rice's stewardship coordinator based in Arkansas's rice country.

We Thank Our Sponsors

Rice Stewardship financial sponsors 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.

Farm Bill Program Supports Rice

Stewardship The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is a landmark initiative that was launched in the 2014 Farm Bill. This program offers expanded opportunities for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), conservation partners, and rice producers to harness innovation, expand the conservation mission, and demonstrate the value and efficacy of voluntary private lands conservation. Rice Stewardship has seized this opportunity to conserve working rice lands, water, and waterfowl. We sincerely appreciate the NRCS's essential role in making the RCPP an overwhelming success. 

Following are some of the highlights of this impressive program:

  • Six rice-focused RCPP projects have been secured to date and will be implemented through 2021. 
  • Financial assistance to support implementation of conservation practices will exceed $50 million.
  • Once completed, more than 500,000 acres of rice and rice-rotation lands will be positively impacted.