Winter flooding of harvested rice fields is among the finest examples of waterfowl-friendly agriculture

By Matt Young

For Frank Appleberry and many other farmers living in the Delta region of eastern Arkansas, rice growing and waterfowl hunting are a way of life. Appleberry cultivates several hundred acres of rice on his Drew County farm. In autumn, after the harvest is complete, he closes the drainage outlets in his fields to hold water on the land during the winter months. The region often receives enough rainfall to completely flood his fields, but during dry years, he pumps irrigation water from wells on his farm and provides much-needed habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds.

"We really look forward to fall when the ducks and geese begin to arrive from up North," Appleberry says. "The flooded fields attract a wide variety of waterfowl, including mallards, pintails, green-winged teal, wigeon, shovelers, gadwalls, redheads, and a lot of snows and specklebellies. I enjoy hunting with my family and friends on the farm, but, more importantly, flooding the fields helps control weeds and prevents erosion, which reduces my chemical usage and conserves soil." 

Appleberry is not alone. Across the United States, farmers flood more than 700,000 acres of harvested rice fields over the winter. Waterfowl flock to rice fields because they contain highly nutritious foods. Ducks dabble in the shallow water for waste grain, weed seeds, and aquatic invertebrates. Geese also eat rice grain, as well as the roots of rice stalks and young green shoots sprouting in the fields.

Following the widespread loss of natural wetlands across the southern and western United States, many waterfowl, including the majority of the continent's pintails, now rely heavily on flooded rice fields for wintering habitat. George Dunklin of DeWitt, Arkansas, is a third generation rice farmer, who serves on the board of directors of the Arkansas Rice Council and is chairman of the state's Rice Research and Promotion Board. He is also an at-large board member of Ducks Unlimited. "In many important wintering areas such as the Grand Prairie of Arkansas, waterfowl have adapted well to feeding in rice fields after natural grasslands, wetlands, and bottomlands were developed," Dunklin says. "This habitat is especially important in the fall and during dry winters, when natural wetland habitat can be in short supply. At these times, flooded rice fields can provide the majority of the wetland habitat that is available for waterfowl and other wildlife in many areas."

Not surprisingly, flooded rice fields are often excellent places to hunt waterfowl, and many rice farmers receive significant extra income by leasing fields to hunters. Visiting duck hunters also provide an economic boost to rural communities in rice growing regions, when they buy food, lodging, and other goods and services. This is especially true in Stuttgart, Arkansas, promoted as "The Rice and Duck Capital of the World," where waterfowl hunting-related tourism is a multi-million dollar business.

"Rice farmers in Arkansas County have always done an excellent job managing water for ducks," Dunklin says. "The efforts of private landowners to provide prime habitat for waterfowl is one of the biggest reasons the Stuttgart area attracts so many birds."

Ducks Unlimited has had a long, successful relationship with rice farmers and the rice industry in the United States. DU was one of the first organizations to work with farmers to flood harvested rice fields for waterfowl. DU also consults with rice growers and the rice industry about agricultural policy issues. Ernest Girouard of Kaplan, Louisiana, has been a rice grower for some 35 years. He also serves on the U.S.A. Rice Federation Conservation Committee and the National Rice Foundation Board. "Ducks Unlimited and rice producers are natural partners," Girouard says. "It's my hope as we begin work on the next Farm Bill that DU and rice producers will continue to build upon their relationship to improve the conservation title benefits for farmers and waterfowl." 

Farmers cultivate slightly more than 3 million acres of rice in the United States each year. Approximately two-thirds of the nation's rice crop is grown in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV) of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri. Slightly more than 1.5 million acres of rice are annually grown in Arkansas, while an additional 500,000 acres are cultivated in Mississippi, southern Missouri, and northern Louisiana.

Private landowners working with DU, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state conservation agencies, and other partners, annually flood more than 110,000 acres of agricultural land in the MAV. Farmers without financial support from government agencies and other conservation groups flood an additional 350,000 acres across the region.

Dr. Tom Moorman, director of conservation planning at DU's Southern Regional Office, explains, "DU has been evaluating potential waterfowl feeding habitat capacity in the MAV since 1997. The flooded agricultural habitat provided by private landowners, combined with habitat provided on public wildlife management areas and created via natural flooding, appear to meet the foraging requirements of desired populations of waterfowl in the MAV during most winters. The role of private landowners in this effort, particularly rice growers, cannot be overstated."

Another region where rice production is critical to wintering waterfowl is the Gulf Coastal Plain of Louisiana and Texas. While the Gulf Coast remains one of the nation's most wetland-rich regions, it has suffered staggering losses of habitat to development and rising sea levels. During the past 50 years, Louisiana alone has lost nearly 1 million acres of highly productive coastal wetlands, and the state could lose an additional 630,000 acres of wetlands over the next 50 years.

With the widespread loss of freshwater prairie wetlands and coastal marshes, flooded rice fields provide critical resting and feeding habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl along the Gulf Coast. However, due to rising production costs, rice acreage has declined by more than 50 percent in the region, from 1.2 million acres in 1968 to only 577,000 acres in 2002. Many former rice fields have been claimed by urban sprawl or have been taken out of production and invaded by exotic Chinese tallow or salt cedar, which provide little value for waterfowl or other wildlife.

In southeast Texas, DU and cooperating state and federal agencies provide rice farmers with financial and technical assistance to improve their water management efficiency. In return, farmers agree to flood their rice fields during the winter months after harvest and in years when they are left fallow. Ken Jasek farms more than 1,000 acres of rice on the waterfowl-rich Katy Prairie west of Houston. With help from DU and cooperating government agencies, he has significantly reduced his water use during cultivation and enhanced his ability to manage his fields for wintering waterfowl.

"The price of fuel today has made it very expensive to pump groundwater from deep wells in this area," Jasek says. "Many rice farmers would like to make improvements to their land and reduce their water costs, but they can't afford the initial investment. DU helps make this possible by sharing the upfront costs, which benefits farmers, hunters, and the ducks." 

Landowners working with DU currently manage and flood almost 20,000 acres of rice fields and other agricultural lands along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas each winter. DU and its partners also have helped private landowners restore an additional 20,000 acres of seasonal wetlands and more than 10,000 acres of coastal marsh in the region. In the future, DU has pledged to invest $10 million in the America's Wetland campaign, an ambitious public/private partnership dedicated to conserving and restoring wetlands along the Louisiana coast.

The third major rice-producing region in the United States is California's vast Central Valley, where approximately 500,000 acres of rice are grown each year. During the past century, almost 95 percent of the Central Valley's original wetlands have been converted to agriculture and, more recently, housing. Winter flooding of harvested rice fields is a very popular conservation practice in the region, where state law limits the burning of rice stubble after harvest. Currently, farmers flood between 150,000 and 350,000 acres of harvested rice fields in this region each year, providing 50 percent of the food resources available for waterfowl and other wildlife. 

Through its Valley/Bay CARE program, DU and its partners provide rice farmers with technical assistance to flood and manage rice fields for wildlife habitat and waterfowl hunting. Dr. Fritz Reid, director of conservation planning at DU's Western Regional Office, elaborates, "The diversity of waterfowl and other wildlife that make use of flooded rice fields in California is absolutely amazing. Recent research has documented that at least 150 species of birds, 28 species of mammals, and 24 species of reptiles are known to inhabit flooded rice fields. In addition, new opportunities to fallow some rice acreage will provide key nesting habitat for local breeding mallards and gadwalls."

During the next 40 years, California's human population is expected to double, placing greater demands on the state's limited water resources. DU remains committed to protecting key water supplies for public and private wetlands, as well as waterfowl-friendly agricultural lands.

An excellent example is the Lower Butte Creek Project, located in the waterfowl-rich Sacramento Valley. When completed, this ambitious project will provide infrastructure to flood nearly 150,000 acres of rice fields and manage 50,000 acres of wetlands on two national wildlife refuges and several private duck clubs, while also allowing safe passage of threatened spring-run chinook salmon, steelhead, and other fish species. Funding for this $30 million effort is being provided by numerous partners, including DU, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

DU is currently using geographic information systems technology to develop land-use planning models that will identify the highest priority areas in the Central Valley for the conservation of wetlands, uplands, and agricultural lands. In addition, DU has recently launched a new program to purchase agricultural conservation easements from private landowners in major rice-growing areas that are threatened by future development.

Al Montna of Yuba City, California, is a long-time rice farmer and DU supporter. He is also chairman of the U.S. Rice Producers' Group Conservation Committee. Montna recently became the first rice grower in the Sacramento Valley to secure a DU agricultural conservation easement on his farm.

"All around us, homes and businesses are being built on former agriculture land as urban California expands," Montna says. "Fortunately, due to the DU agricultural easement program, our land is destined to serve both agriculture and conservation in perpetuity. We will leave this land to our children. We made this decision as a family. It's not just about farming, hunting, or feeding wintering ducks. It's about the future."

The total acreage of rice that is grown in the United States is relatively small in comparison to the vast acreages that are planted in corn, wheat, and soybeans each year. However, in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Gulf Coastal Plain, and Central Valley of California, the crop is absolutely critical to the regional economy and waterfowl. In the future, DU will continue to work closely with America's rice growers in these areas to provide critical seasonal wetland habitat for wintering waterfowl and other wildlife, as well as economic benefits for farmers and recreational opportunities for waterfowlers.