Ark. Rice fields important to waterfowl population

<em>Editor’s Note: Jessica Whitaker is a senior at Cornerstone Christian Academy in Tillar and will be writing a column on farming each week throughout the summer. Her family has been farming in the SEARK region since 1890 and she is writing this column to promote awareness about agriculture in the area. She can be reached at jessicawhitaker19@gmail.com.</em>

Rice farmers are known not only for the food they produce, but also as being one of the best conservationists in agriculture today. In the USA Rice Sustainability brochure it states “over a twenty year period, the American rice farmer has a 35 percent reduction in land use to grow the nation’s rice crop, a 53 percent reduction in irrigation water, and a 34 percent reduction in soil erosion. They use practices that help wildlife prosper as well as annually lowering the amount of water they use.

Arkansas rice fields are home to over sixty species of wildlife. Waterfowl migrate south during the winter and choose Arkansas rice fields for food and rest. Rice is not only an excellent source of food for humans but it provides nutrition to birds as well. When a rice farmer floods a field in the winter, it provides a habitat for waterfowl that are migrating through the delta. By doing this, rice farmers are being good stewards of the environment. Although they are unable to fully replace natural wetlands, rice fields support 45 percent of the North American wintering duck population. Private lands are essential to wetland birds and wetland conservation, as three-quarters of wetlands in the United States occur on private lands. Waterfowl not only provides hunters with recreation, but it is a good source of income for America’s rice farms.

Scott Manley is the director of conservation programs at Ducks Unlimited where he has been employed for 15 years. Ducks Unlimited’s main objective is to conserve the habitats that waterfowl thrive on. As important as rice fields are to waterfowl, it is important for Ducks Unlimited to work side-by-side with rice producers to keep the fields readily available for waterfowl.

Scott Manley commented that “Ducks Unlimited is trying to promote conservation in the rice industry in two ways. One big way to promote conservation is to put together the research, science, and the facts of how important rice is to waterfowl. We also want to educate people about how important rice is to people and how important it is as a waterfowl habitat. The other way is to work with individual rice producers on the ground to make them more efficient for wildlife.

“The most important thing that rice farmers can do is level their fields, and construct an outside perimeter road, so their fields can be easily flooded during the winter,” he said.

Most rice farmers understand that leveling their fields to grade makes them more efficient to irrigate, and uses less water. Water is one of the most valuable resources that the rice farmer is trying to conserve.

“Rice does not spoil or rot like other grains; this makes it readily available for waterfowl throughout the winter,” said Scott when asked why America’s rice fields are so important. “Also, rice is grown in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, also known as the Delta, which was natural wetlands over 200 years ago and has been converted to agricultural land. Although it is impossible to fully replace natural wetlands, rice lands support approximately 45 percent of the North American wintering duck population while also providing an estimated 60 percent of all dabbling duck foods in the Central Valley, 35 percent of all food along the Gulf Coast, and 70 percent of food in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. These same habitats are also extremely important to shorebirds and other wetland-dependent birds.”

When Scott was asked what a farmer can do to increase the population of waterfowl on his or her property, he replied “leave as much plant residue as possible and stop up pipes at the lower end of your field so winter rains can flood the fields naturally. Also, leave flood water on the field until late February so ducks will be able to rest after duck season. If farmers choose to not flood their fields, ducks will have nowhere to rest when they migrate south.”

The rice farmer is truly the ducks best friend.

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