A California rice industry-wildlife development pilot project underway in the Sacramento Valley is a prime example of farmers and environmental groups partnering to achieve mutual long-term goals.

The pilot program, underway in part at the Davis Ranch operated by the Sycamore Family Trust in Colusa County, is designed to tweak rice production management to spur habitat and wildlife expansion in the epicenter of California’s rice industry.

Among the major players include the California Rice Commission, PRBO Conservation Science, Audubon California, and The Nature Conservancy.

The $1.3 billion California rice industry wants to further improve its commitment to wildlife habitat development in part to maintain support for flooded rice production. Environmentalists view the rice industry as a natural gateway to improve and expand the habitats and populations of critters.

The pilot program, launched in 2009, follows two years of discussion between the groups. The program was detailed in late September to Western Farm Press at the Davis Ranch.

“We are developing new ideas and practices to further enhance water bird habitat for a variety of water birds in rice fields,” said Paul Buttner, environmental affairs manager with the California Rice Commission based in Sacramento. “Rice fields are an excellent habitat drawing 230 species of wildlife, including about 30 viewed as species of concern by state and federal agencies.”

Jon O’Brien, habitat restorationist with Audubon California in Winters, Calif., noted, “We don’t want to take rice land out of production or stop rice farming. We want to work with the rice industry to gain improved wildlife and waterfowl habitat in rice-growing areas while making the changes economically viable for rice growers.”

The pilot program includes four potential changes in rice field management to enhance wildlife. One is to flatten berms between the rice field checks (patties) and remove the vegetation. Buttner says this effort could create a more desirable habitat for some shore birds and waterfowl.

Don Traynham, Davis Ranch custom operator, is one of a handful of farmers participating in the pilot program. Davis Ranch includes 3,500 acres of rice.

“Traditional levees are more of a pyramid shape,” Traynham said. “For the pilot study, we rolled the berm top down to create more of a curvature while maintaining the same height. The idea is to attract more shore birds to the center of rice fields for nesting which can reduce predation from coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and possums.”

The cost to flatten berms is minimal, Traynham says, requiring an extra tractor pass or two across the berm.

A second concept in the pilot program encourages rice farmers to flood individual fields immediately after the fall harvest. Fields are traditionally flooded once the entire farm’s rice harvest is completed.

“The idea is to flood fields immediately after the harvester completes the harvest on a field-by-field basis rather than waiting to flood fields after the entire farm is harvested,” Buttner explained. “This would get water on some fields earlier. In late summer there is a dramatic shortage of open water for shorebird migration. Earlier flooding would increase the available acreage for shore birds.”

A third practice under study is varying the water depth in individual rice fields during the winter months. The current standard is about 5 inches of water across all rice fields. Creating variable water depths could provide habitat for water bird species which have various habitat preferences.

“The water depth of the field really drives which birds use it,” said Khara Strum, water bird ecologist with PRBO in Petaluma, Calif. “Water fowl can better utilize deeper water depths than shore birds and the long-legged waders typically use depths between waterfowl and shore birds. We’re trying to target those three guilds by creating a beneficial habitat for all of them.”

A fourth practice encourages more available water for birds during the winter by growers keeping water boards in place in the fields to improve rain water collection. Strum says the “boards in” procedure in the winter months can create improved habitat for shore birds.

“If boards are put back in back in the water control structures in un-flooded fields then we can accumulate more rain water to provide extra habitat for shore birds.”

Pilot project a win-win opportunity

The current pilot project is a win-win opportunity, says O’Brien.

“We want habitat projects which are compatible with existing rice operations,” O’Brien explained. “We want to work with farmers to develop better habitats for birds and other wildlife through economically viable practices for the ranch.”

O’Brien’s participation in the current pilot project involves developing natural habitat areas on the edges of farm fields, including oak and sycamore trees, California grape and Mexican elderberry bushes, and native grasses.

“Creating habitat corridors compatible with existing agricultural operations means no land should come out of production,” O’Brien explained. “Instead of disking and spraying the field edges every year we can create a native habitat for wildlife.”

Buttner points out that rice growers, themselves environmentalists, have a natural appreciation for waterfowl and support efforts to increase wildlife numbers.

“Many growers enjoy their own zoo experience in their rice fields,” Buttner said.

California’s rice industry has similarities to the actor Rodney Dangerfield who claims he does not always gain the respect he deserves. Wildlife in rice-growing areas generates respect for the rice industry.

“The public generally doesn’t realize that California rice is a billion dollar commodity with yields which can fill the Arco Arena (sports venue) in Sacramento eight times annually.”

Consumers often take rice for granted since it is always on the grocery store shelf, Buttner says. Many Californians, especially in the large urban centers, no longer have relatives with a direct connection to agriculture. Consumers aware of the wildlife habitat created by the rice industry build excitement for California rice.

California’s Sacramento Valley has about 2,500 rice growers with about 525,000 acres in production and about 75,000 acres of managed wetlands. The majority of California-grown rice is medium grain. Virtually all of the rice in U.S.-consumed sushi is California grown. California ranks second in the nation behind Arkansas in rice production.

The ongoing rice-wildlife relationship in California is a strong collaboration; both sides understand each other’s value. An estimate from Ducks Unlimited suggests that a one-half reduction in California rice acreage would result in 1.2 million fewer ducks in the Sacramento Valley.

About 7 million waterfowl reside in the Pacific Flyway, including about 60 percent of those in the Sacramento Valley.